Northwestern Mutual
Create Great Business Results Four Ways to Widen the Path for Women in Your Workplace Create Great Business Results Four Ways to Widen the Path for Women in Your Workplace
< Back to Insights & Ideas

Create Great Business Results: Four Ways to Widen the Path for Women in Your Workplace

Sarah Schott •  June 17, 2015 | Focus on Women, Business and Careers

Sometimes we women are our own worst enemies in the workplace. We tend to underestimate our abilities. We don’t advocate for ourselves as much as men do. And often we’re not as comfortable taking risk because we don’t want to fail or disappoint.

What’s behind the lack of self-confidence? I believe that in our society many girls grow up feeling like they need to achieve a perfection that isn’t always required of boys. A perfect example is my own boys. They can leave the house disheveled, and no one thinks anything of it. The same would not be true for a girl.

This need for perfection carries into the workplace. In my own work experience, I can remember times when I was nervous about taking on new and unfamiliar responsibilities and was unnecessarily hard on myself when things didn’t go quite as planned. I was striving for perfection when the reality was that some amount of imperfection was okay. In fact, it was good. Each time I’ve taken a risk, even when I’ve stumbled, I’ve learned and grown and am better for having had the experience.

Now, as a leader, it’s my responsibility to create a vision for our department’s future and help my team create a path to get us there. I believe the wider that path, the better the journey will be for everyone, including women. What does it take to widen the path for women in the workplace? I believe it starts by creating the right culture and mentoring and developing women with an approach that reflects how women may see the workplace differently than men do.

  • Create a culture in which women are encouraged to take risk. Frequently, women won’t take risk unless they feel it’s safe to do so. For example, there’s an often quoted statistic attributed to an internal review of records at Hewlett-Packard showing women applied for a promotion there only when they met 100 percent of the qualifications. Men applied when they met 60 percent. Because there’s a greater tendency for women to underestimate their abilities, leaders have an obligation to create an environment that encourages women to take risk. For me, that may mean when I talk to a woman about project or career planning, I’d put more energy into pushing her by saying, “Yes, you absolutely have to apply for that job. You already have most of the skills and experience the manager is looking for, and you can learn the rest as you go.”
  • Help your team learn from mistakes rather than dwelling on them. One of the reasons many women are risk averse is that they hate to disappoint. And if a risk they’ve taken doesn’t pan out, women are typically more inclined than their male counterparts to take the failure personally. As leaders, we can’t use that as an excuse to coddle, but we do have a responsibility to recognize the tendencies and the importance of debriefing. Was the failure really that big a deal? What can you learn from it that will make you successful next time? And keep in mind all of the things that have gone well when one thing hasn’t.
  • Be aware of unconscious biases. Unconscious biases, whether they are based on gender, religion, age or the many things we observe about others, are everywhere. We can’t get rid of them. But we must create awareness of them; and when we do, we’ll create a wider path and broaden the range of acceptable behaviors for everybody. As one example, the next time you’re in a meeting, pay close attention to what happens when a woman speaks. She’s more likely than the men in the room to be interrupted while talking, according to 2014 study published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology.
  • Encourage your team to share their experiences. In my company, we have a number of networking groups—including one for women—that allow employees of a similar background or experience to support one another. They share stories of failure and recovery and coach others based on their experiences. This mutual support makes each person in the room more likely to succeed. It also lays the foundation for recruiting and retaining other talented women.

By taking these steps, organizations free women and all employees to maximize their impact and create great business results.

Rate This Article