By Katherine Fusco |
We’ve all heard the narrative, about the senior woman who doesn’t support women below her. (What we hear a bit less about are the battles that that senior woman fought and the toll they have taken.) And we know about the “mansplainers,” the low-key harassers, and the “underminers” young women face at work.
Some women might object to the premise of this article. They might say that they identify as an individual or that their employer doesn’t see gender. They might say they’ve never experienced sexism. Well, that’s true until it isn’t.
More than having a system in place for when things go bad—like filing-with-HR and hiring-a-lawyer bad—women’s networks also know things, like how best to navigate a given workplace as a woman. For example, how have people at your office dealt with maternity leave? Are there male colleagues who are not safe to work with one on one? Are there clients who will have trouble hearing a woman’s expertise when she pitches an idea? What are the best ways to manage this? And so on.
Happily, young professional women today are part of a significant demographic group, significant enough that a body of advice exists to help them navigate the sometimes-unfriendly world of office politics. And while some of that advice is primarily focused on the level of the individual—how to negotiate as a woman, how to dress, etc.—if women really wish to change workplace culture, they need to support each other along the way.
So, what’s an ambitious young woman who wants to support her peers to do?
1. Network up, down and sideways.
It can be easy to focus networking efforts on those above you. These are the people with the obvious goodies. However, there are two big problems with this: First, despite all the women entering the workforce, many of the top positions are still men. While it’s important to be collegial and friendly with the men in your office, it’s as important to start developing a network of other women. Second, if we are moving toward a more progressive world, the women at your level and below you will be the future of your organization someday. It is in your own interest for them to flourish and to develop camaraderie with them. If women are doing well in general, it boosts the likelihood of you doing well. You could even make your commitment to other women’s careers explicit, forming what author Jessica Bennett calls a “Feminist Fight Club,” in which a group of women gathers to talk strategies for career advancement and fighting workplace sexism.
2. Draw attention to the domestic work of the office.
Who gets coffee? Organizes birthday cards and cakes? Gathers money for gifts? Orders sandwiches? These tasks are all labor, but labor that’s not likely to earn a bonus or a promotion for the person undertaking them. As a Harvard Business Review article describes them, these tasks constitute “office housework,” and women tend to both volunteer more for these tasks and receive more pressure to volunteer for these tasks. The solution to the problem? Take the volunteering out of it and make it a matter of turn taking. If you can implement a system for assigning these tasks on a rotating basis, generations of women that follow will be forever grateful.
3. Don’t fall into the gossip trap.
Humans love gossip. It’s part of how we bond, creating an inside group that’s momentarily pitted against the outsider who is the topic of conversation. If you are a woman in a predominantly male office, it can feel like a good idea to engage in this kind of gossip about other women with the men of the office. It can make you feel like you are “one of the guys.” And while it’s true that women are capable of being jerks, be on the lookout for coded language like “difficult,” “drama queen,” “emotional,” “demanding,” etc. that might suggest that something else is going on. If the young men you work with keep dragging a senior woman, for example, you might worry about what that means about their prejudice against women in leadership roles. Perhaps you should seek out her friendship instead.
4. Signal boosting.
Sit in on workplace meetings long enough, and you’ll see variations on a pervasive phenomenon unfold. A woman will start explaining something and a man will start talking over before she’s finished her point. Or, more insidiously, she will make a point or proposal, it will be glossed over, and 10 minutes later a man will make the same proposal, then taken up. This phenomenon creates frustration, to be sure, but also the more damaging tendency for men to get credit for women’s work. Thankfully, we have a model for combatting this. In 2016, The Washington Post reported on a strategy used by female staffers in the Obama White House. Although Obama was a feminist president who employed many women, the culture of meetings remained typical. The women responded by developing the following strategy: “When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution—and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.”
As your career develops, you will have the opportunity to help up the women who are coming up behind you.Unfortunately, people can have implicit bias even against members of their own identity group. As you move into the rooms where decisions are made, be careful of selecting for opportunities only people who “look the part.” You might even make it part of your practice to seek out new women in your firm to take to lunch on a weekly basis, so that their names and projects are more top of mind when it comes time to put people forward for special opportunities or awards.
Whether for good or for ill, cultures tend to replicate themselves. Changing the culture with and for the women around you can make your workplace one in which women thrive, rather than just survive.