how employers can create spaces for women to be their authentic selves at work

Women wear different hats depending on the setting. We have our professional self that we reserve for work. Then we have a casual, social self who we are at home. Some women wear additional hats like ones for being a mother or a boss. Each hat comes with its own expectations and skills. Who you are when you’re at home reading to your toddler will be different than who you are when you’re in a boardroom leading a quarterly review. Who you are in kickboxing class will be different than who you are when delivering tough feedback to a direct report. 

For many women, the idea of being their authentic selves at work is a complex one. Merging and allowing our personal and professional personas to overlap still seems taboo. Though it’s becoming more common for women to discuss how challenges in their personal lives affect their professional lives and vice versa, women have traditionally been expected to wear each of these hats separately. Carving out space for women to be their whole, authentic selves at work and at home will help break down barriers for working women.

how employers can help women be authentic at work

make a concentrated effort

Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If you want your workplace to be an open, judgment-free zone where women can be their authentic selves, it takes effort to make it happen. Actively work to build a culture of openness. It won’t happen overnight. It takes sustained conversations and a desire to change on the part of both leaders and employees. A good place to start is taking a hard look at your policies and procedures. Are they conducive to employees being open at work? Punitive policies that punish employees for infractions such as being late, working from home, or making mistakes can lead to a culture of fear that incentivizes employees to keep things hidden. A culture of understanding and flexibility that allows room for growth and change is far more productive. 

enable courageousness

Being your authentic self at work isn’t easy. It can be intimidating to put yourself out there and leave yourself open to criticism or judgment from colleagues who you respect. This is especially true for women who must grapple with competing expectations at work and at home. Women are expected to be present, dedicated employees, while also being available at home to maintain their household and family. A culture that promotes shared values of trust, openness and vulnerability makes it easier for women to step into both roles more seamlessly. When women feel confident that their employer has their back no matter what else is going on in their lives, it’s easier to have the courage to be themselves and be open about the challenges they face balancing their work and family responsibilities.

embrace differences

While women and other minority groups are more visible in workplaces than ever before, they often have to make concessions to fit their employer’s vision of what an ideal employee should look like. That can mean adopting a certain method of working, changing the way they dress, or the hours they work. Having a narrow definition of what it means to ‘be a good employee’ is limiting for everyone. Instead, aim for policies that embrace differences allow employees to embrace their own authentic way of working. There’s more than one path to success!

For example, many employers are moving toward casual dress codes that allow employees to express themselves through their clothing, recognizing that how you dress has little to do with your output at work. Formal dress codes are outdated and often used to police women, with rules about hem length, stockings, sleeve length, and other things that don’t apply to men. Doing away with these outdated rules creates a level playing field where everyone is trusted to make choices about how they present themselves. 

Employee reviews are another opportunity. Traditional performance reviews typically ask managers to rank employees on a black and white scale. The one-size-fits-all approach tends to favour people who follow a traditional path success, which is more challenging for women and other minorities to achieve. Adopting a more holistic approach to evaluating employees that focuses on communication, feedback and growth, rather than checking boxes, is a more realistic way to evaluate your entire spectrum of employees.

have an approachable leadership team

Formal, top-down leadership is on the way out. More employers are leaning into a democratic approach to business that allows employees at all seniority levels to share their input and influence decisions. On-the-ground employees have a unique perspective on the business that is different but no less valid than executives’. This approach to decision-making allows employees the freedom to be authentic and openly share their ideas and insights without having to work through an outdated management system. Leaders who are open, approachable and listen to feedback are the cornerstone of this approach. Cold, impersonal leaders who spend their time locked away in their corner office, disengaged from the people who work for them, tend to come across as out of touch.

encourage curiosity and risk-taking

Most businesses are extremely risk-averse. Mistakes and failure are often treated like cardinal sins in the workplace. Employees (especially women who often have to ‘prove’ themselves repeatedly to justify their position at work) are often afraid a mistake will derail their career. If this fear is eliminated, they’re free to be curious and take calculated risks that could pay off in a big way.

A healthy dose of curiosity is part of innovating. You can’t move forward and drive growth without sailing in uncharted waters. Organizations that stick with what they know and refuse to adapt to new technology or the preferences of younger generations tend to fall behind or become obsolete. Look at how Blockbuster approached video streaming, how Kodak treated the shift to digital cameras, or how department stores responded to the shift to online retail. Being curious and open to change (and the possibility of failure) is critical to build authentic, forward-thinking workplaces.

create a mentorship network

Mentorship is a powerful tool that allows women to learn from the successful people that precede them. It can also help validate shared experiences and allow women to talk through their challenges and obstacles in a safe space. Many workplaces have informal options to access mentorship. Women who want to be mentored may be expected to take the initiative to reach out to potential mentors and create their own path. There are drawbacks to this approach. For instance: it can be intimidating for junior employees to approach a leader that outranks them and ask for help, and leaders are often stretched for time so their availability for mentoring may be infrequent or inconsistent. An employer-sanctioned mentorship program gives employees the tools and resources they need to connect with a mentor who is available and committed. 

 

In the end, creating a workplace where women (and all employees) are free to be themselves boils down to one key ingredient: trust. Trust your employees to make smart, well-informed decisions and work hard, and they’ll feel safe to be their authentic selves.

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