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How to Help Women Lead the Workplace Authentically

A group of business people giving each other high fives in a meeting.

​Women have experienced a bevy of barriers to advancement in the workplace—ranging from discrimination to sexual harassment.

These obstacles often prevent women from reaching their full potential in their careers. However, reports show that many women in leadership positions exhibit characteristics that workers appreciate. For example, research by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that many workers rank their female supervisors higher than their male supervisors in multiple categories, including in expressing empathy and resolving conflicts.

Sucheta Misra is the vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) with consulting company North Highland in Atlanta, and has supported corporations, nonprofits, foundations and educational institutions with their DE&I and social responsibility goals.

She spoke with SHRM Online about barriers women face in advancing their careers—including issues that aren't widely discussed in corporate America—and why women should be trusted to lead in a way most authentic to them.

SHRM Online: Women have historically faced barriers to equity in the workplace that have negatively affected their career progression. Why are women, particularly women of color, having such a hard time advancing their careers?

Misra: There are a number of reasons why women experience obstacles in advancing their careers, but one area where I see women having difficulty at the moment is that organizations often don't leave space for women to show up authentically in their own leadership styles. Instead, women are expected to fit the mold of how we've been conditioned to see a leader and how that leader operates. That mold has typically been a white male leader.

When organizations impose their own expectations of a leadership mold on women, there are two outcomes. First, it leads to women questioning themselves and the value of them showing up with authenticity. Second, women believe they need to show up in a way that may not feel natural, which triggers feelings of imposter syndrome.

This issue becomes exacerbated for women of color because they see so few women of color in leadership positions across the board and therefore, they don't have many in-person or even figures in media to look to as leadership models.

As a woman of South Asian descent, I had to find my own leadership style because I didn't see anyone in leadership that looked like me throughout my career. I experimented with different leadership styles. The one that resonated with me the most was and still is servant leadership. And that is what I try to embody in my work every day.

Organizations are missing out on some really important strengths of women that can be leveraged in the workplace. These aren't the stereotypical traits associated with women, like being warm and nurturing, although those might be true for some women. I've personally found that women in leadership positions are very self-aware, which is a valuable trait for anybody who leads diverse teams. They're also great connectors of not only people, but ideas, which is incredibly important in client- or customer-based leadership roles.

SHRM Online: A recent study by McKinsey & Co. found that Latinas and Black women are less likely than women of other races and ethnicities to report that their manager supports their career development. What are the implications of this lack of support?

Misra: Without managers who directly support Black and Latina women's careers, these women will fall behind their peers in career development and advancement. We will see a stagnation of these women in leadership roles at a time when we want to see more diversity in leadership roles.

It's very important that managers in companies are DE&I-informed so they can understand how to actively support diversity within their teams. Managers are the leaders that make the difference in the day-to-day lives of team members. Being DE&I-informed means having training on managing diverse teams in a culturally competent way and applying that training in real time. This is especially important for hybrid working models where in-person interaction is not always available.

While being DE&I-informed should be a long-term organizational goal, what managers can do in the short term is get to know their employees on a one-on-one basis. Having those personal relationships and understanding who they are as people goes a long way toward creating a healthier culture.

SHRM Online: Another barrier many women face is sexual harassment, which continues to occur at high rates in workplaces. How can companies address this issue?

Misra: One of the main problems I've observed with persistent issues involving sexual harassment, discrimination or even microaggressions is that companies address the symptoms and not the root cause. For instance, a company might fire the perpetrator of sexual harassment but it might not address the corporate culture that allowed that harassment to occur in the first place.

This type of behavior rarely occurs in a silo. There is typically some level of acceptance of this conduct. Many organizations make the mistake of shying away from addressing cultural issues because it takes more time and energy to shift away from toxic behaviors.

But organizations are only being reactionary when they fail to address negative cultural patterns and norms rather than preventing these incidents from occurring, which can lead to irreparable harm to their employees and affect the organizational culture.

SHRM Online: What is an issue among female workers that isn't being discussed as much as it should be?

Misra: Women's mental health is not being discussed within the workplace like it should be. Women today often experience physical, emotional and mental overload as they take on so many different life roles, and that overload then impacts their career advancement. They are expected to perform well at work, take on volunteer roles at work, have majority or full care of children if they are mothers, care for aging parents, manage home affairs, and so on.

Many of these roles are equivalent to separate full-time jobs and contribute to women feeling continuously burned out. When someone is in a stage of burnout, they're not likely to advance their careers in a way that is productive or linear. For women of color, this is even more pronounced because there's often an additional layer of obligations and expectations that come out of certain cultural norms.

To be clear, this is a societal problem. And while it's not a company's role to solve all societal ills, anything an organization can provide—whether it's policy-related or benefits-related—to help relieve the burden on women goes a very long way.

Some years ago, I was a member of a women's employee resource group (ERG) and I participated in a discussion on additional compensation for women within the organization. To the surprise of leadership, the women's ERG unanimously agreed that if they had to choose, they'd much rather have expanded benefits from the employer that helped alleviate their day-to-day stress than receiving a bigger bonus once a year. To me, that was an indicator of where women are looking for relief in order to be successful in their careers.

Women today consistently feel overwhelmed and overloaded. If we don't discuss or address women's mental health, I fear it will result not only in the stagnation of women's careers but also the continued trend of women dropping out of the workforce.

Collectively in organizations, we've had more conversations on mental health, especially with the pandemic. But we have only scratched the surface and not yet focused on the real impact of depression, anxiety, trauma and a host of other mental health issues and how that impacts work performance. I don't think we're quite comfortable discussing our mental health with one another, and over time I hope that becomes common language in the workplace.


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