I wanted to be a collegiate cheerleader. Their fancy outfits, powerful moves, ability to bring joy, and the drive to cheer others on was inspiring to me. Every game, they would dress up and show up. I mean, really show up as they bravely flipped into the air.
I spent most of my life thinking I didn’t do a single thing to make that dream come true (other than wearing one Halloween costume). But eventually I realized I am a cheerleader, because you don't have to flip over backwards to uplift others or cheer them on.
Though I encourage joyfully uplifting everyone you can, there’s a special power that comes from women supporting other women.
As a xennial (a microgeneration on the cusp between Gen X and millennials), I grew up in a time when women didn’t always help other women at work. Or looked at in a different light, they supported other women in the best way they knew how with the information they had at the time. For some, they didn’t want to help other women because there was a perceived (or real) scarcity of roles available. For others, they felt that women shouldn't get extra support, because they hadn’t received any during their own careers. I always found this way of thinking troublesome. If I disrespected or undermined others because that had happened to me, I wouldn’t be the kind of leader, colleague, or friend I aspire to be.
Instead, I want to be a part of changing the narrative and opening every door I can for other women—even if those doors had been closed to me—and I’m happy to say I think many others are moving in this direction, too. Let’s explore a few of the most straightforward ways you can help open these doors.
1. Amplify other women’s voices and ideas—with credit.
If you notice a team member who shuts down or interrupts another person speaking, intentionally or unintentionally, say something like, “Patrice, I’m not sure you were quite finished saying your comment and I’m sure the group would like to hear more of your thoughts.”
Point out when women’s ideas are missed or “borrowed” and redirect the conversation back to what they shared and where the insights came from. Along the same lines, you can amplify other women’s work by giving them credit for their projects and accomplishments. Help them shine by pointing out what their projects did to help your team or the organization.
2. Ask if you can bring someone you’re mentoring or supporting to an event you’re invited to.
Networks play an incredibly important role in your career—but not everyone has equitable access to the kind of network that can offer them professional opportunities. Your ability to be successful is based in part on where you grew up, where you went to school, and where you work. If you’ve experienced benefits based on these factors, it’s your responsibility and opportunity to provide them for others.
No matter where you are in your career, you can be a meaningful mentor. What an amazing thing you can do to serve others and create access—while navigating your own career growth. So once you have made it to the place where you can open doors for others, help them get into the rooms that can advance their careers by bringing them to networking events and introducing them to people who may be able to assist or champion them further.
3. Talk with other women about your experiences.
When you allow yourself to be vulnerable and share about what you’ve faced in your career, you can give other women insights they can learn from—and help them feel less alone. While this may start in the little moments in individual conversations, it’s also important that you’re prepared in the bigger moments—especially as a leader or manager.
In 2018, for example, the Chronicle of Philanthropy announced on its front page that one in four fundraisers had experienced sexual harassment at work, primarily from donors. I brought my team together to talk about this article, so they could hear me say that their safety and well-being always comes before the work. I also opened up about my own personal experience as one of those statistics and we had a candid conversation about how to handle it if they ever personally felt uncomfortable in a situation.
People often ask me how to know if they’re disclosing too much. For me, I ask myself, “Will this help me build a relationship or connect more genuinely with this person?”
4. Share salary information.
Being open with your own pay is vital to helping promote transparency and reduce the gender wage gap over time. To reach gender pay equity, women need to know what to ask for in the context of their industry and role.
5. Walk the walk—even with the little things.
No matter how difficult it is, setting an example for other women with your everyday behaviors helps them see how they can grow and thrive in their careers—and push back against norms and habits that have disadvantaged women in the workplace.
For instance, don’t deflect the praise because it feels awkward to get attention or you’re focused on the one thing you could have done better in the presentation. Don’t minimize your work because you think things like that are “just doing your job” either. Instead, say “Thank you” and mean it. Recognize your own awesomeness, and be grateful that someone else saw it, too. And you’ll help other women around you see how they can simply accept a compliment and own their successes!
6. Champion working moms.
As a new working mother, I often felt I had to hide what I was doing to make it all happen at work and home. I spoke in hushed tones when school called about something that happened that day (of course, calling me as the mother, despite the fact that my husband was also listed as a contact). I meticulously dressed and did my hair and makeup each day, so I would look like I had it all together—even on the days I’d done enough parenting and household responsibilities that I’d practically worked a full day before arriving at the office.
Some of this was my perception about how women succeeded at having it all—and some of it was real gender bias. So while working mothers will still benefit from the actions above, there are some ways you can help these colleagues specifically.
- Speak up about practices that disproportionately affect moms. According to What Works for Women at Work by Joan C. Williams (one of my favorite books!), part of the bias against working mothers and pregnant women is the perception that they’re not as dedicated to their careers. Correcting this means addressing what’s being said—by shutting down any comments about working moms who rush out of the office at 5 p.m., for example—and what’s not being said. Though you may not directly experience what others do as a working parent, show compassion and advocate for others. It shouldn’t fall only to working mothers to speak up about office policies—both official and unspoken—that negatively affect them.
- Be mindful of scheduling... I’ve been known to swoop into conference rooms like James Bond ducking under a closing steel trap as I tried to navigate making school drop off, commuting to work, and getting to that early morning meeting. In some workplaces, there are parameters on when meetings can be held to be mindful of the demands on people’s schedules. If your company isn’t one of them—you can still make it a personal practice to only schedule meetings after (or before) a certain time. Let’s be real, no one really likes rushing in for an early morning meeting, so this is more inclusive for everyone!
- …and rescheduling. Meeting times often change to keep up with unexpected demands of the workday, and though it can cause friction for everyone, it can be an added challenge for working mothers. They may have set aside time to pump or need to leave early to get to parent-teacher conferences. If you’re changing a scheduled meeting, consider how it might affect others and give as much advance notice as possible.
- Ask how they want to be helped. If you’re not sure how to support a working mother, ask her! She’ll be grateful for the acknowledgment, even if she doesn’t yet have the answer figured out. Whether a woman has just returned to work after parental leave or has been navigating working motherhood for years, she could benefit from your support.
Adapted excerpt from One Bold Move a Day: Meaningful Actions Women Can Take to Fulfill Their Leadership and Career Potential by Shanna A. Hocking (McGraw Hill, Nov. 15, 2022).