How to Advocate for Women at Work

Women have come a long way, but we all know that they haven’t come far enough. Women still make less than a man for the same work; 82 cents on the dollar or less, depending on the study. Women still don’t occupy their share of corporate leadership positions. According to Pew Research, women occupy roughly 1 in 4 C-Suite leader positions; for women of color, it’s just 1 in 16.  And women still have a harder time raising capital to open a small business. The gender credit gap faced by women-owned small and medium-sized enterprises is estimated at $1.5 trillion, according to Goldman Sachs. 

As a CDFI lender, Michigan Women Forward is committed to helping more women and minorities bridge that gap to make their dreams of entrepreneurship a reality. As for the other challenges women face in the workplace? We tapped into some national experts and savvy local business leaders to get their ideas for how we can all do a better job of advocating for women at work. Here’s their top advice: 

1. Speak Up.

It can sometimes be intimidating to do, but women have to make a concerted effort to speak up in meetings and other forums where opinions or ideas are shared. The female perspective is valuable, your individual ideas can add to the organization, but it’s not going to make a difference if you don’t share it. At the same time, it’s important for small and large businesses to actively ask women for their feedback, ideas and insights. Women aren’t monolithic either. It’s important to tap into women of various ethnic, generational and personal experiences. If you have female diversity at your company, be sure you take advantage of it and get their thoughts and ideas. They will be better for it and so will your organization. 

It’s also important to speak up for women whose thoughts or ideas weren’t amplified at meetings – or were not credited to them. This can happen innocently in the course of a brainstorming session, but it still needs to be addressed. If Allison softly suggested an idea that Bill picked up on and is later given credit for. Bill or someone in the organization should say, “Actually, it was Allison’s initial idea.”

2. Rethink ‘nice.’

Men are applauded for being confident and assertive; women are often criticized and expected to play “nice.” If someone complains that a female co-worker is being too bossy or difficult, ask them for a specific example. Then, ask yourself and the person who complained about the woman if you would level the same judgment to a male co-worker who said the same thing? Sadly, and not surprisingly, the answer is often “no.” Remember: These inequities in how we judge women vs. men aren’t always meant maliciously. It’s part of societal norms that have valued certain traits in men but not in women. Together, by being mindful of ourselves adhering to these outdated norms and stopping that behavior, we can give women the same freedom to lead and manage without the burdens of backward thinking. 

3. Celebrate women’s accomplishments.

According to research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, women are often given less credit for team successes and are blamed more for team failures at a company. Women contribute to this sad finding as well. They often deflect or minimize the credit they receive for their accomplishments. Men are more likely to own successes as a result of their singular qualities and abilities. Part of this is because when men take credit for their accomplishments, it gets recognized. When women take credit for their accomplishments, they are often penalized for being too self-promoting. 

By making an extra effort to recognize the successes of women in the workplace and encouraging them to own these successes, we can start to give women space to feel safe in showing their efforts to succeed. 

4. Encourage women to ‘go for it.’

Studies show that men will apply for a job when they meet just 60% of the hiring criteria, while women won’t apply unless they think they meet 100% of the criteria. This is one of the big factors that hold women back from middle management positions – a pipeline for upper leadership. It also holds women back from pursuing their professional dreams in general. Women are less likely to apply for a grant or funding for a small business, for instance, out of an assumption they would not qualify. Men are more likely to just apply with the hopes that they will. We need to encourage ourselves and other female peers and co-workers to put their insecurities aside and take a leap. What’s the worst that could happen? If they don’t get the job or grant, they can try again the next time. 

5. Be a mindful mentor.

We all have an innate instinct to be drawn to those with whom we have things in common, so it’s no surprise that men tend to mentor men and women tend to mentor women. The problem with that is that since more men are in upper leadership, they are perpetuating that trend by not mentoring women to join their ranks. The same issue exists across racial groups. White women may be more apt to mentor other white women, so that doesn’t help bridge the gap of black women rising up in an organization. By being a mindful mentor, we can be more aware of who we choose to share our time, help and professional support. We can approach our mentoring time as an opportunity to foster and expand inclusivity across gender, racial and generational groups.

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