The mid-career and senior women leaders I work with have busy lives. Many of them are mothers, so in addition to their demanding full-time jobs, they’re also responsible for the lion’s share of the household management duties—what I like to call "the third job." They’re the primary communicators with the school and childcare professionals in their lives. They make sure dogs are walked, that everyone is dressed in clothing approaching the right size, and they figure out how to minimize the impact of the family tornado in their living quarters (although this is typically the first area to go in over-scheduled times).
When we dig into their values and priorities, one of the conflicts we uncover is that they are deeply committed to advancing women leaders and supporting the more junior women at their organizations, and yet they have no clue how they can add commitments into their lives without teetering into overwhelm.
There’s already no room in my life. How will I fit this in?
That’s when we look at the challenge in a new way. Pulling other women up doesn’t have to mean attending weekly networking events, taking on a mentor, creating your own Feminist Fight Club group (though that’s just plain fun) or securing a board position at a nonprofit. There are many new choices we can make WITHIN our existing work hours that will do more to support and advance women’s careers.
Here are 5 ways to get started:
1. Be generous with feedback.
It can be tough to give feedback, but it is a critical method of learning for adults—so it’s worth it. When you can offer both praise and critique for specific behaviors and actions, your employees and colleagues are given an opportunity to improve in their roles and also become less resistant to accepting feedback when it comes from other members of the team. Sometimes as women we fear not being "nice" when we give feedback. I turn that around to say: "You’re not being nice by withholding feedback that could be useful and advance someone’s career!"
2. Spread the love of office housework equitably.
How many meetings have you walked into where one of your male colleagues asks a woman at his level to put the bagels out on the tray? What’s so hard about dumping said bagels onto a flat surface? When you notice that the women on the team are always the ones who take notes at meetings, plan team outings or organize the giveaway tchotchke closet—speak up and let your male colleagues know they can/should also bear responsibility for these tasks. If you see women constantly volunteering for things like this, go back to step one and give them feedback. When women spend their extra time on these activities, they can miss an opportunity to step into more strategic work that could get them promoted, in turn thwarting our goal of getting more women into positions of power.
3. Call out bias when you see it.
Where there are humans, there is bias. We look at life through the lens of our own unique set of experiences, and with that our propensity is to create our future experiences based on what we know. That’s why it’s critical to have a diverse set of voices speaking at the same volume in the room—so we have a variety of lenses and data sets feeding into the greater whole. Too often, organizations don’t exhibit that level of diversity, and a culture of bias takes root that is tough to challenge and expose. But if you are a woman with a respected voice in an organization, and you see another woman being overlooked for a role or promotion because of some kind of bias, do the right thing—speak up. Share your POV with trusted male colleagues who will support you and stand with you to untangle these institutional biases.
4. Courageously be the model of work-life balance you want to create.
If you need to leave work at 5 to pick up your child at 6, if you’re managing a chronic health concern or you’ve set a goal to get your butt to the gym in the evening because it refuels you for the next day—honor your commitments. Those boundaries DO NOT make you less valuable. Have the hard conversations with your superiors about exactly what you need to perform at your best, and don’t feel you have to explain why. When you step into this courageous space of advocating for yourself and acknowledging your non-negotiables, you are clearing the path for other women to do the same. When the fear comes up in the asking, know that this is not only about you and your life—you’re taking a stand against the rigidity and face-time you’ve faced in your career while also paving the way for others to feel like it’s possible to succeed in both career and motherhood.
5. Participate in women’s networks when possible.
Some of the most rewarding moments of my digital marketing career came through my participation with the Women’s Network, WIN, at American Express. I connected with many more senior women than I ever would have in my role. Seeing them and learning from them helped me to see what was possible. If you are mid-career or a senior leader in an organization that has a women’s network, find some way to participate that resonates for you. You don’t need to volunteer to take on a second full-time job or plan the group’s largest event. You can speak on a panel, take part in speed mentoring or do your part to show that although we’re not there yet, it is possible to make strides toward equity and a meaningful career.
In order to make changes in our organizations, it’s critical to participate in a way that works for each of us individually. If you jump in up to your ears and raise your hand to run every powerful committee, you will burn out and resent the work. Choose a way to engage that will bring you energy and momentum—and also inspire you to sprinkle these same behaviors into other areas of your life. For me, this means listening to a room full of women who were flattened by their organization’s town hall featuring a panel of all white men and acknowledging "You’re right. Representation matters. Keep exposing what should be obvious by now. Continue to share your voices and find allies who will help you amplify them. This is possible. Let’s do it together." Because it is, and we will.