Five Actions to Empower Women for Leadership

AdVance Leadership » Five Actions to Empower Women for Leadership

Welcome to Friday 411, issue #033. In 4 minutes, with 1 insight and 1 action, you’ll learn practical ways to advocate for women in leadership.

1 Insight

In last week’s Friday 411, I shared the hesitancy many women have in referring to themselves as a leader. Women see a clear, preferred, and desired future. They’re ready to tell you about it. But, historically, women have not been granted equal opportunity to use their voices.

If you are ready to empower female voices to lead, here are five actions you can take:

 1. Raise daughters to exercise their voices.

If girls are going to grow into women who have a voice at the table, then parents need to allow them a literal voice at the table. Give your daughters time to speak around the dinner table, to put words to their joys and frustrations. Allow them to voice alternative opinions to yours. Reassure them it’s okay to communicate different thoughts and feelings than others, even those in authority.

Be aware of the language you use to describe them. When my friend was meeting a new boss for the first time, she asked him what his children were like. When he got to his six-year-old daughter, he described her as “bossy.”

“No,” his new supervisor corrected. “Not bossy. She’s a leader.”

Watch for leadership characteristics in your daughters that have traditionally been viewed as “negative” or “not feminine.” When you see these characteristics, nurture their healthy growth and development instead of shutting them down.

Teach them how to communicate effectively and respectfully. Demonstrate that they, also, deserve to be spoken to with honor, dignity, and respect.

When I was in third grade, we were able to choose “specials,” one class that changed each quarter. One quarter, a gaggle of other girls and I selected Jazzercise, mainly because we had heard the teacher, Mrs. Robinson, had Whitney Houston’s album, and we were all eager to hear “Greatest Love of All.”

(For those of you who did not get to experience the charm of an 80’s childhood, there once existed a day when you could not play music on demand. You either had to tune into the radio and wait for your song, purchase the single or entire album yourself, or do what we were doing—find out who had the album and listen to theirs.)

I had never had a class with Mrs. Robinson. An air of fear hung over the classroom, and I was confused why all the other eight-year-old girls cross-legged on the floor around me were as still as death and as quiet as ghosts.

Mrs. Robinson sat perched in a chair, a formidable presence before us. From the time the bell rang, she had been preaching to us about how to become confident young women. The minutes were ticking by, and we had yet to do one Jazzercise move. More importantly, she had not played Whitney’s song. As Mrs. Robinson droned on, a quiet murmur began to roll through the girls.

When is she going to play “Greatest Love of All?”

Who is brave enough to ask her?

Dorothy, you do it.

I couldn’t figure out what they were scared of. In my experience, teachers were generally receptive to students asking questions. I raised my hand. Mrs. Robinson called on me.

“Yes, ma’am. Can you please tell us when you are planning to play ‘Greatest Love of All?’”

Mrs. Robinson’s face hardened into an ice sculpture, her eyes frosting over as she stared me down.

“How dare you question me in my classroom,” she belittled. I will play whatever song I choose when I choose to play it. You need to learn your place, young lady, and how to keep your mouth shut.”

This public berating continued for several minutes while I tried to melt into the floor, my whole body on fire with shocked humiliation.

To this day, I cannot hear “Greatest Love of All,” a song about self-worth, without feeling the blaze of degradation that scorched over me in that classroom.

The best way to convince women they deserve to be treated with honor, dignity, and respect is to treat them that way when they’re still little girls.

 2. Advocate for representation. 

Women need to be “in the room where it happens.” Look around the table where decisions are made. If women are not present, you have a problem.

Lack of female representation presents challenges on all levels of leadership. Women make up slightly more than half the population of the United States, yet only represent 28% of Congress. This is the highest percentage in US history, yet it still leaves a wide margin for adequate representation. As of 2022, the proportion of women in senior leadership roles globally sat at 32%, also the highest number ever recorded. We’re making strides, but we still have a long way to go.

If you want to advocate for female representation, start small. Look around you, and start at your own table. Are the women in your organization proportionally represented by women on your leadership team? If not, reevaluate your leadership pipeline:

1. Does your pipeline have women who are being prepared for leadership positions?

2. Are there any women who aren’t in the pipeline who need to be?

3. Do you have women in your leadership pipeline who are ready for advancement?

One of the worst actions you can take is to promote women just so you can claim you have women in leadership. If you don’t have women prepared for leadership, start by recognizing those with high potential and provide them with the development they need to move up through your pipeline.

 3. Create safe environments for women to speak. 

The common business meeting is not designed for hearing women’s voices. The authors of a Harvard Business Review article presented extensive research showing how the typical meeting silences women. They suggest practical ways bosses, organizations, male peers, and women themselves can restructure this standard business practice to be gender-inclusive. For example:

  • Bosses can ask women direct questions to intentionally pull them into the conversation.
  • Organizations can be more generous with giving women feedback on their meeting skills and providing them with development opportunities.
  • Men can include women in “the pre-meeting,” spontaneous discussions that take place before the actual meeting.
  • Women can learn how to prepare to speak and alter their tone and word choices.

 4. Recognize stay-at-home parenting as leadership development.

Motherhood significantly contributes to women getting left behind in leadership, their voices lost behind breast pumps and the screams of hungry babies. Women in leadership who choose to have children often face impossible choices.

I made the personal decision to spend less time working outside the home while I’ve raised my children. My time at home was not time away from leadership. Since my oldest son took his first breath nineteen years ago, I have seen a clear, preferred, and desired future and have been gathering and mobilizing my little people toward that future. If mothering is not leading, I don’t know what is.

If you’re a stay-at-home parent, this does not mean you are any less of a leader. You’ve simply moved your primary leadership role into your home temporarily. If you’ve been managing a home, you’ve not been “out of the workforce.” You’ve been expanding and strengthening your leadership skills.

It is time organizations look at what has traditionally been viewed as résumé gaps and reinterpret them as résumé builders.

 5. If you are a female leader, support other female leaders.

Advocating for female leaders is not an issue where only men have room to grow and do better. Women, also, need to learn how to advocate for fellow women in leadership.

A study published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology hosted 40 participants (half men, half women) in three-minute conversations. “During the discourse, women interrupted men just once, on average. Yet men interrupted women 2.6 times. Women also interrupted each other—at a rate of 2.9 times per conversation.”

For a multitude of reasons, from pitch to assertion of dominance, women’s voices are notoriously easy to interrupt. Yet this study found women interrupting other women more than men interrupted women.

There are far too many stories of women who have battled their way to the top in leadership, then refused to turn around and reach out a hand to pull other women up. Even worse, many of these stories tell of successful women pushing the women behind them back down the hill. How sad to arrive at the realization that part of the reason women have not found their place in leadership is because they have been sabotaged by other women.

We as women leaders need to build a structure of internal support.

A thoroughly researched 2015 Overseas Development Institute (ODI) report reviewed the global evidence on the processes of change that enable women to have substantive voice and leadership in decision-making. They found that, “Women organizing with other women around shared interests builds their capabilities for voice and influence. The experience of group cohesion and solidarity can contribute to self-affirmation at the individual and collective level, give support and legitimacy to gender equality agendas and enable women to exert the collective power needed to shift gender norms.”

If we are ever going to push representation percentages to a fair number, we must join our voices together. This includes not only advocating, but also:

  • cheerleading others with public praise and acknowledgement;
  • supporting others with our resources of time, money, energy, and attention;
  • mentoring those coming up behind us;
  • And providing opportunities for other women’s voices to be heard.

Even if none of this was EVER done for us.

A few years ago, as the #MeToo movement swept around the globe, I sat with a group of women a generation older than me. My mouth dropped in disbelief at the opinions they were sharing.

Who do these young girls think they are?

We all had to put up with it. 

Why do they think they can get out of paying their dues? 

What makes them so special?

They just need to learn to deal with it like we did.

It is human nature to reject change, particularly change that arrives too late for self-benefit. Leaving the world better than we found it requires sacrifice. Our work will result in others’ reward.

My hope is that we’ll sense our own reward by clearing the way for those who follow.

After all, that’s what a leader does.


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