August 4, 2020

5 Ways Women Can Support Each Other at Work

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Article by Katherine Fusco

We’ve all heard the narrative, the one about the senior woman who doesn’t support women below her. (We hear quite a bit less about the battles that senior woman fought and the toll they have taken.) We know, too, 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 they identify as individuals or that their employers don’t see gender. They might say they’ve never experienced sexism.

That’s all true, until it isn’t.

Women’s networks are about 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. How have people at your office dealt with maternity leave? Are any male colleagues known to be unsafe to work with one on one? Are there clients who will have trouble hearing a woman’s expertise when she pitches an idea?

A women’s network can help the women in it identify those issues ahead of time — and find ways to deal with them successfully, together.

Happily, young professional women are today part of a significant demographic group, significant enough that a body of tested advice exists to help them navigate the sometimes unfriendly world of office politics. While some of that advice is primarily focused on the level of the individual — how to negotiate as a woman, how to dress, etc. — women need to support each other along the way if they really wish to change workplace cultures for good.

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 your networking efforts on making connections with the people above you. These are the people with the obvious goodies.

However, there are two big problems with this approach. First, despite all the women entering the workforce, many of the top positions are still occupied by men. While it’s important to be collegial and friendly with the men in your office, it’s just 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. 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 by 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 is unlikely 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 both to volunteer more for these tasks and to receive more pressure to volunteer for these tasks. The solution to the problem? Remove volunteering from the equation and make it a matter of taking turns. If you can implement a system for assigning these tasks on a rotating basis, the generations of women who follow will be forever grateful.

3. Don’t Fall Into the Gossip Trap

Humans love gossip. It’s part of how we bond; we create an inside group 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. Doing so can make you feel like you are “one of the guys.” 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 kind of talk might suggest something else is going on. If the young men you work with keep dragging a senior woman, for example, that could be a sign of 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 before she’s finished her point. More insidiously, a woman will make a point or proposal, and it will be glossed over; 10 minutes later, a man will make the same proposal and have it taken up.

This phenomenon creates frustration, to be sure, but more damaging is how it perpetuates the tendency of 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 in his administration still stuck to the aforementioned patterns in many ways. The women on Obama’s staff responded by developing a strategy called “amplification.” To quote the Post: “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.”

5. Sponsoring

As your career develops, you will have the opportunity to help the women who are coming up behind you. Unfortunately, people can have implicit biases even against members of their own identity groups.

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. That way, their names and projects will be 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.

A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.

Katherine Fusco is an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she teaches film, theory, and American literature. She is the author of Silent Film and U.S. Naturalist Literature: Time, Narrative, and Modernity (Routledge) and Kelly Reichardt (University of Illinois). Currently, Katherine is working on a book about stardom and questions of identity in the 1920s and 1930s. Katherine has appeared in The Atlantic, Dilettante Army, Harpers Bazaar, Headspace, OZY and Salmagundi. You can find her blog on motherhood and creativity at CreateLikeAMother.blog.

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