Let’s Talk About…Supporting Women at Work

Q: I have a sizeable team reporting to me, and I am keen to provide good support to women within my department. Any thoughts?

This is a nice aim and I’m sure many will appreciate it. For your own ongoing success, do remember that your primary role as a manager is to create overall performance – not to champion a cause. If one complements the other, wonderful!

At departmental level, your employment of a ‘coaching’ style of management will be invaluable in driving knowledge and support. I am not a big fan of cordoning women off into a group of their own, so I say: integrate! For example, workshop together – male and female – to understand perceptions of success traits within your business, from varied perspectives. Who do they deem “successful”, and what skills or behaviours do they think drives this success?  One-to-one coaching sessions (with you or with an external coach) will then be invaluable in allowing each employee to use that information to work on themselves and their personal branding – that is, rather than treating men and women differently, treat everyone as an individual. Common female coaching themes such as credibility, the dreaded FOMU (Fear of Messing Up – usually due to overthinking and a desire to do things right), being liked (forgetting that respect is all that is necessary), or spreading ourselves thinly through multi-tasking can be tackled one-on-one, as required. This is the ultimate in focussed support, and they should be reminded to use it well.

Bear in mind that, while women are of course as capable as men, they often suffer worse PR as a group. You can also support women by monitoring this within your company. For example, as I survey friends, acquaintances and associates whilst writing this, the key difference between managing men and women in a busy environment remains ‘maternity leave’. Whatever the legislation, and however happy for the mother-to-be, a natural human reaction to months-long absence from the building cannot be avoided (“Why did we get the same annual bonus if she was absent for 6 months?”, “Can I have paid leave for my life choices?”, “She says she cannot do overtime anymore because she has kids – is it one rule for parents and another for the child-free?”, and so on). Depending on company size and workload, this whole area can be a bit of a minefield, but unaddressed issues can really snowball, leading to men seeming, well….easier. For some gripes, the law may clearly state the answer; for others, there may be no answer that satisfies everyone. Engage quickly with HR to try to close down these issues, using law and company policy, where bad feeling is getting out of hand. And cross-train vigorously so that absences are easily handled.

Similarly, ensure that women generally treat each other respectfully in the workplace. Common sense dictates that senior observers of negative behaviour between women will not want to bring that behaviour higher into the organisational hierarchy – in the last 48 hours alone, I have been told three new stories, from three different companies, of women openly mistreating women at work. The expressed disappointment relates not only to the women involved, but also to the managers and HR people who watch and do nothing. To achieve your aim, don’t be that manager.

If career progression is of secondary interest to a ‘woman with potential’, that’s fine. Please don’t become the boss who is disappointed by women without workplace ambition – there are plenty of other areas in life to which a woman (or man) may choose to apply time and energy. Also, do not expect all women you help to carry on your tradition. Some women do not want to help other women – they can’t stand out among the men if there’s a bunch of other women there, too! This happens. Laugh it off and keep going.

In summary, focus on departmental performance and individual self-awareness. Give all staff the information and space to plan their desired progress, and let the performers (male and female) rise up accordingly – forget numbers or quotas. Simply provide a robust, fair platform for success – in my view, the rest is up to the individual.

Key points to remember:

  • First and foremost, your goal is departmental performance
  • Workshop success traits as a group – benefit from male and female views
  • Individually coach for alignment with success traits
  • Individually coach for specific weaknesses or mental ‘gremlins’
  • Provide information, feedback and ‘thinking space’; leave responsibility for change with employees
  • Engage quickly with HR to respond to any negativity on broader female-oriented themes or policies.
  • Cross-train well, so absences are more easily handled.
  • Encourage women to treat other women well, engaging HR if needed.
  • Remember, and accept, that not all women (or men) want to move upwards.
  • Provide a fair platform for success – those who really want it will use it.


This Q&A was first published in Irish Tatler magazine.

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