Working for Home: The Role of Leadership

Welcome to the final blog in my series entitled “Working for Home,” a deep-dive exploration of gender inequity in the workplace and what we can do to change it. In the first blog of the series, I outlined some of the major challenges facing working women, especially during pandemic times. In the next blog, I began to focus on solutions accessible to working women and their families. Of course, real change has to involve leadership as well. That’s where this blog on best practices for leading the rise of gender equity in the workplace comes in.

The Critical Need for COVID Leadership

Leadership is always critical to the workplace. Still, as this HBR article highlights, there’s an increased pressure on leaders in the current pandemic to steer their companies and teams successfully through the chaos. Stress is high for leaders and their employees, so I’m offering some guidance for how workplace leaders can best offer support for the working women on their teams during these times.

It’s important to recognize that working women are also experiencing new and unique pressures during the pandemic, some of which I described in this earlier post. Ruchika Tulshyan, an accomplished author on the subject of diversity and equity in the workplace, spoke to HBR’s Women at Work podcast about the need for sensitivity in leadership for women during the pandemic. She emphasized that women of color in particular can be vulnerable to the expectation to over-perform during this period of remote work. Tulshyan stressed the need for leadership to cultivate sensitivity to that experience. Melissa Abad, a sociologist at Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab, was also cited in this article on inclusive leadership, noting that minority women’s expression of stress tend to receive a more negative response in the workplace than do others’ manifestation of the same affect. In a time of extreme stress and virtual communication, leaders also need to foster sensitivity to that disparity.

Yet it’s not all bad news for working women in the pandemic. Brigid Schulte, author and founding director of the Better Life Lab, a work-life, gender equity and social policy program, pointed out in her interview with NPR that this pandemic has made a case for women’s success in the working world. She notes that this pandemic has underscored the ability of caregivers working from home to contribute productively to the professional world. Schulte sees this pandemic-era revelation as an opportunity. It paves the way for leaders to introduce new attitudes and policies designed to better support working women, now and in the future.

Starting with Some Attitude

Leaders set the tone for their workplaces and employees, so the attitudes and values they project matter. This article that explained why women often avoid visibility at work makes some suggestions for leaders to demonstrate that they value women’s participation in the workforce. This report from McKinsey & Company describes women’s leadership as “a competitive edge for the future,” but it also notes that leaders undervalue women’s typical forms of leadership. The report lists various forms of leadership exhibited predominantly by women in the workplace and finds that this leadership adds value to organizations as a whole. For instance, women tend to facilitate collaborative decision making more than men, encouraging a practice that serves the whole organization. One change leaders can adopt is in their value of these kinds of leadership. Recognizing women’s leadership contributions can encourage them to step up their initiatives and lead more in the company or team.

Moreover, this article encourages leaders to educate themselves and their teams about inequities in the workplace and the role of implicit bias. This Implicit Association Test from Harvard’s Project Implicit allows anyone to take a self-assessment and gain insight into their own biases. The goal of this exercise is to create awareness of attitudes that need adjustment. Then, working women’s leaders and coworkers can pay attention to the ways their attitudes influence women’s experience at work, with an eye to promoting equity and improving that experience.

Culture Shift

The goal of examining leaders’ attitudes and strengthening those that best support working women is to create cultural change in the workplace. This research on workplace diversity found that the culture at work contributed to psychological safety for employees of minority identities, which correlated with improvement in their performance at work. In other words, a culture that makes diverse employees feel safe and valued increases their contributions to the workplace.

That’s important because diverse leadership and teams drive innovation and high performance in the workplace, according to this article’s overview of extensive research. Analyzing a nationally representative survey of 1,800 professionals in combination with dozens of case studies and focus groups, the authors found that over 75% of respondents did not work in companies with diverse leadership, based on two kinds of diversity. That included inherent diversity, measured by lived experience with a minority identity, and acquired diversity, such as experience working on behalf of underserved communities. The minority of companies that did have diverse leadership outperformed the others significantly. Why? Perhaps because women’s ideas are 20% less likely to be endorsed in the workplace at non-diverse companies. By contrast, a “speak-up culture” encourages all employees to contribute actively to their organization’s success. 

Creating this diversity-promoting culture can be accomplished with several simple steps. This article includes a list of six best practices, including making sure that all team members are heard, encouraging novel ideas, and accepting feedback from the team. Leaders who make these changes can contribute to strengthening their workplace culture. In this podcast, Ruchika Tulshyan also advocates for a culture of trust. She encourages leaders to display trust in their employees by responding constructively to requests for extensions and support instead of second-guessing needs. This promotes an environment in which working women and others can communicate their needs safely and feel supported by their leadership.

Promoting Potent Policies and Practices

The final area of change leaders can influence is the actual policies and practices affecting women in the workplace. Large scale policies around leave should allow shared parental leave, which this article positions as a critical step towards shifting the burden women bear at home. Especially in pandemic times, as this article on leadership in crisis explains, time off should also be granted generously for those experiencing illness themselves or needing to focus more time on caregiving obligations. Tulshyan also argues in that article that working parents, moms included, should be offered additional support to ensure their continued success in the workplace.

That said, working women don’t just need support. They also need greater opportunity. As I’ve described in this series’ first blog post, many women encounter barriers to career advancement in the workplace. This HBR article lists practical strategies workplace leaders can adopt to change that trend. For example, leaders can reevaluate the way they conduct assessments. Instead of focusing on traditional aggressive leadership styles only, leaders can consider other kinds of valuable traits and leadership women more often bring to the table at work. Assessments should recognize and value contributions of employees, like many working women, not exhibiting aggressive leadership. Additionally, leaders can assign and offer more “stretch” assignments to women. As Brigid Schulte pointed out in this interview, the pandemic has demonstrated that women should not be discounted based on assumptions about caregiving responsibilities. Women working at home and caregiving can also contribute productively to the workplace. They deserve opportunities to tackle larger, career-advancing assignments. Finally, women’s networking events can promote connections that help women advance in their careers. Not only does this provide professional development opportunities for an organization’s employees, it also lays the foundation for more women to move into leadership roles, adding to the diverse leadership I cited above as correlating to increased workplace innovation and performance. 

Well, that concludes my official series. I hope your learning and work on this subject continues. We all have a role to play in shaping workplace culture and increasing opportunities for working women. Each of us can become a leader in this effort. Best of luck to us in our work, for home, from home, and towards equity.