Organisations are launching many initiatives to create a balanced ratio of men and women at the workplace and to increase the number of women managers at the mid and senior levels.
While structured initiatives are necessary, it is the interactions at the team level, that affect an individual the most at workplace. These experiences have the potential to enhance one’s growth or nullify the impact of the well-meaning organisation-wide initiatives. I believe, the day-to-day actions of managers play a significant role in creating a healthy gender balance and growing a pipeline of women leaders.
I share a few practical tips from my experience, for managers who want to help raise women leaders in their teams.
1. Let her make her own decisions
Often managers make decisions for their women colleagues. If someone has a young child, they assume she may not be able to take on a complex project. In one of the sessions I was facilitating about second generation bias, a manager narrated this story. He had to depute one of his team members to Nigeria on a short assignment. In his team there were two men and one woman who could do that job. He asked both the men and they turned it down. The woman team member came to know about the assignment. She was angry that she wasn’t considered, and confronted the manager. He had not asked her because he assumed she would not be willing to travel owing to her family commitments. He believed he was being “compassionate”. She chose to take the role. At the end of the project, the client wanted her to stay back and lead new projects. He said, what he thought was compassion, in fact was obstruction. He was standing in the way of her growth. Her freedom.
Leadership tip: always ask, do not assume and/or make other’s decisions for them.
2. Check if you are feeding the dinosaur
Always be watchful as to who ends up doing the “chores” in your team. If there is a team workshop, the lone woman in the team ends up taking notes and creating the report. The men in the team will say it is because she has a better handwriting – and not because they are lazy, or because they think it is a woman’s job to take notes and tidy up after them. If a team has gone for a recruitment drive, after the long day of administering tests and technical assessments, men choose to go out for a beer, women will stay back and tabulate the results. If there is celebration to be planned, or a company event to be organised, it is no guess who ends up being “volunteered”. If you are a manager, watch out for the male paradigm of who does what being reinforced by the men, and willingly accepted by the women.
Leadership tip: Make both men and women aware of what they are doing; reassign and distribute roles.
3. Learn to process shouting or crying the same way
When men are upset or angry they often scream or shout. Women when they are upset and feel strongly about something, may cry. Most managers handle the shouting but are unable to receive and process the crying. The first step in learning to process shouting or crying is to be aware and acknowledge that both responses emanate from the same place- they are both upset about something they deeply care about. Secondly learn to receive it and process it. Often, we request the person who is crying to come back later, “after you have pulled yourself together”. Do not make that your standard response. Allow the person to cry. Understand what is going on. Do not postpone it. Do not avoid it. Learn to be comfortable with the discomfort. It will contribute to your leadership growth.
Leadership tip: Do not try to avoid or solve the issue or offer solutions. First, feel and understand the pain or the angst. Identify the feeling and express it – (eg. I see that you are upset or frustrated or angry….) and ask what has caused it. Be authentic.
4. Re-organise the team calendar
When a project is completed, or an important task is accomplished, teams celebrate. Many organisations require people to upgrade their skills and get certified in new areas. It is often noticed that such programs are held post work or on weekends, making it difficult for one gender more than the other. In global companies, conference calls and customer meetings often get scheduled for the evening, because no one is willing to tell the person across the waters to rotate the schedule and take turn bearing the inconvenience. Guess who ends up missing most of the calls and the meetings-the women team members. The men in the team, out of the goodness of their heart, will say “don’t worry, we will take care of the call”. However, in the long term the women lose out on building a connect with their overseas counterpart or the client.
Look at the schedule of team events, outings, customer interactions and truly try to ensure all can attend and no one is structurally left out. Especially the women colleagues.
Leadership tip: When requesting a change in the schedule, or making a shift in the calendar, always communicate clearly why you are seeking the change. Make everyone aware of the intent. No one will object.
5. Be aware of getting caught in the easy option trap
Disparity in salaries between women and men is a common feature in most organisations. Managers don’t see themselves consciously discriminating, yet the data shows otherwise. Here are two situations to watch out for.
First, when a woman returns from maternity leave, many managers automatically assign an “average” performance rating even if she was a top performer when she left. Organisations which have the forced bell curve practice, women returning from maternity leave come handy to reduce the top tier percentage and increase mid or lower-tier. This sets her back on promotion for that year. Even when she is a top performer, the following year promotion is not considered, as she does not have at least 2 years of high performance. This sets her back by 2-3 years, affecting salaries, variable pay and promotion.
Second, during recruitment, it is a known fact that women generally do not negotiate their salary. Every manager wants to show reduction in headcount cost. Every recruiter wants to show savings in overall recruitment cost. In the process women do not get paid what is due to them. When questioned, managers say “she didn’t ask” or “she is happy to receive what was offered”.
Leadership tip: Do not go with easy option or a convenient solution. Be just and fair. Today’s easy option will create an inconvenient situation tomorrow.
6. Partner in her growth with authentic feedback
When managers have partnered with us in our development, we have experienced accelerated growth. One way to partner is to provide timely and helpful development feedback. What is helpful feedback?
Many studies have shown that managers give different kind of feedback to their men and women team members. There are two distinct differences. One, men receive feedback mostly related to their functional or technical competencies with inputs to improve and enhance them. Women get feedback more on their behavioural competencies such as organising, communication etc. Two, men get very specific feedback, such as learn a skill or try certain new tasks. Women often get generalised feedback such as be less aggressive or pay attention to client needs etc.
Leadership tip: Before giving any feedback, learn what their aspirations are for their own growth and ensure each team member is aware of what is expected of their role. Then give specific feedback that helps them excel in their role and help prepare them to fulfil their aspirations. Be conscious that the wording you use for men and women is alike.
As managers, as leaders more is demanded from us. Some studies say it would take more than two centuries to bridge the equality gap between men and women at workplace. It is beyond our lifetime. It is quite depressing. However, we can all choose to reduce that time-frame. It is in the small everyday conscious acts, that we can turn the tide.