Companies need to have leaders across levels who think about the needs of women before they even ask, to proactively support and provide what they need
Gender diversity seems to be the current hot topic in the corporate world. Numerous organizations today are focused on policies to support their women workforce, which granted, are an essential building block to encourage gender diversity. But, is it really about just having the right policies in place; isn’t it equally important to change mindsets? Would the impact of such policies be reinforced by also focusing on challenging the thought process of both men and women in the workforce?
Let’s start with the women in our workforce. Based on numerous conversations I have had, I have come to realize that a lot of women quit their jobs at various life stages, not because there was no company policy to support them, but because they felt their supervisors would not support them in balancing their personal and professional choices. Oddly enough, if you asked their supervisors they would say the women never asked! What they say is, “If I am told what you need, I will support it as long as you assure me that you will get the job done.”
I have a number of women on my team at various stages of their lives, single, newly married, just had a baby, have two kids, etc. I have always encouraged them to be open and ask for what they need in order to do their job better and be more productive. I have asked the same of the men on my team! Making the work lives of our teams easier and less complicated will drive productivity, motivation and retention. There may be limitations to the policies that can be designed to support the scenarios that follow, but if you have managed teams long enough you would have faced them.
“Just married” – needs time to make an impression on new in-laws/husband hence, try not to allocate work beyond 5:30 till couple of months of marriage.
“Just had a baby” – would need to work from home at least one day a week post maternity leave or when the baby isn’t well; so set expectations with all stakeholders on the team.
“Has two kids” – needs a laptop and a Wi-Fi dongle so that she can connect while sitting outside piano lessons for kid 1 and singing lessons for kid 2!
If as women we understand that there is additional support needed at certain points of our career and we ask for it, more often than not we will get it. It is contingent on our commitment to our job. Be it a woman or a man, if I know they are committed to their work and not gaming the system, I would be happy to extend flexible options to allow them to work effectively. Men or women leveraging these flexible options also need to acknowledge that when their performance is compared to others who are not, there will be a modicum of difference in evaluation. The two key thoughts are - to ask for what one needs and be reasonable about it. The support required in such situations should not adversely affect the organization that one works for.
Now let’s review the situation from the perspective of team leads or supervisors, whether men or women. The first order of business as a team lead is to be open to having conversations in line with those mentioned above. Leaders need to foster an environment that encourages the women on their teams to be comfortable in asking for what they need without the fear of their standing, in the team or company, being compromised.
The next phase of this journey is when faced with any of the above requests, how one best addresses them. The most common reaction I have seen is to avoid them! IT projects are fraught with time pressures, so most leads would rather not take on the added pressure of staffing a woman who may have personal situations that need to be dealt with. As a result of this, they potentially lose hard working, committed team members. A woman who was a star performer when she was single tends to see a downward career slide post marriage and children. So, here again we need to challenge mindsets. Women will always need to balance their families and professional needs - acceptance of this is necessary. Therefore, don’t walk away from engaging a woman on your team. Assess them first based in their capability, competency and commitment. Once you do that, evaluate the level of flexibility needed by them to do their job well.
A number of male leads on my team are uncomfortable in having a conversation around how they can enable the women in their teams in balancing their lives. The discomfort, it appears, arises primarily due to the gender difference. Men are more comfortable speaking to men and women to women. There is also an inability to gauge where to draw the line in such a conversation. Men, understandably so, are unsure as to how much they can probe. Hence, if 80 percent or more of the workforce are men, then the risk is that conversations around the topic never happen. Therefore, it becomes imperative to equip men and women team leads to be able to better deal with scenarios resulting from gender diversity. Team leads would be well served by setting up common focus groups and forums that give people the opportunity to get exposed to how to better deal with women oriented work scenarios. A key point here is that in such forums both men and women need to participate equally.
If we deal with these situations irrespective of gender, it will be much easier to have the conversation. For example, I have had both men and women request for flexible work timings. On one project, the men on my team preferred working shift hours as it allowed them to go to the gym in the morning or take care of their kids while their wives worked! Once I have a good feel that the person will get the job done and the flexible hours/location will not compromise their role and the job they need to do, I am open to the arrangement.
Thus, companies need to have leaders across levels who think about the needs of women before they even ask, and proactively support the leaders and women to provide what is needed. A combination of good women supportive policies and an awareness of how to deal with challenges faced by working women without judgment and prejudice is the task.