Ask the Career Doctor: Helping women advocate for advancement in a post COVID-19 era

HR managers must help talented women seize the current opportunity for advancement with as much vigor and determination as their male counterparts.

Q:  In your last column, you offered suggestions on how HR managers can best retain valuable female talent as the job market heats up. It’s a “worker’s market” right now and we’re seeing a trend emerging with regards to advancement. That is, the men we’ve retained are actively seeking out leverage and opportunities, while the women seem to be taking “a step back and seeing what happens” approach. How can I encourage and support these women to be equally proactive in going for career advancement?

A: With the pandemic (hopefully) drawing to a close, there may be a “once in a generation” opportunity for women to demand what they want and deserve on the job, especially when it comes to equal opportunities for advancement. As is typical of many women, however, they are sticking with a passive approach for fear of being perceived as too opportunistic and aggressive. Unless this attitude changes course, startling trends we saw throughout the past year – including men being promoted and receiving pay raises at a much higher rate than their female counterparts – will unfortunately continue.

The key for HR managers lies in coaching women to advocate for their own advancement in a positive manner. Here are three examples of how to encourage and support female talent in your organization:

  • Enable them to embrace their differences. Women bring so many distinct advantages to the workplace –– including being effective collaborators, team builders and empathetic motivators, just to name a few. They must be supported in recognizing the sense of power this brings to the workplace.
  • Emphasize the difference between confidence and self-promotion. Women often tend to be quiet and less aggressive than men and fear highlighting their achievements may be perceived as arrogance. Many wrongly assume their work will speak for itself. They are wrong in this assumption. HR managers must coach women on walking the fine line between confidence and their perception of being self-aggrandizing.
  • Help them adapt to new communication styles and build connections. You’d be surprised at how many talented, high-level women have trouble being vocal, assertive and visible in virtual settings. In effect, they risk becoming “Zoom wallflowers.” Instead, they must be coached on achieving a similar level of “organizational grace” in virtual meetings – speaking with confidence and clarity and being firm in their convictions but graceful in their delivery. In addition, they need to develop a network of connections (mentors and advisors) to fuel their growing confidence.
  • Encourage them to declare their ambition. If a woman wants to be in the c-suite one day, she needs to tell her mentor, other senior leaders and influencers. By sharing her desire for increased responsibility, she allows others to see her as someone intent on career advancement.

To date, the pandemic and ensuing job environment have not proven to be a great equalizer in terms of advancement opportunities for men and women, but instead tilted the scale towards men even more disproportionately than before. If we’re not careful, the ranks of women in leadership positions are in danger of dwindling even further. Companies benefit from women in senior roles and HR managers have a critical role to play in ensuring talented women seize the current opportunity with as much vigor and determination as men.