Ask the Career Doctor: How can I encourage qualified women to seek promotions?

Support a mindset shift, reinforce the role and help her find her people.

Q: I have a woman on my team who I believe deserves a promotion — only she doesn’t seem interested in seeking it. How can I encourage her, and other qualified women on my team, to seek promotions?

A: One of a manager’s many responsibilities is to coach and develop their team members — including preparing them to one day take on a promotion and step into new roles. But even if you feel like a member of your team shows potential for an open position above her current role, she may not be willing to apply for it.

There are a handful of reasons women tend to self-reject when thinking about applying for promotions or jobs. But before we unpack them all, it’s important to recognize that these mindsets don’t happen in a vacuum. Unfortunately, many women may be less inclined to apply for promotions because there are many barriers they experience, including lack of feedback and career guidance, a lack of key relationships that help them see the possible opportunities, a dearth of female role models and the common false assumption that they need to do the job the same way as their male colleagues.

A recent MIT study found women are 14 percent less likely to be promoted and are consistently rated lower than men on “growth potential” — the nature of which leaves room for gender bias. Removing that bias from your performance analysis is the first step to understanding how best to help your team members. Even if the women on your team don’t know these statistics, it’s likely they feel the impact on their lives. How can you as a manager encourage women on your team to pursue career growth, especially when you have identified a position they would be a great fit for?

Support a mindset shift

As the leader of WOMEN Unlimited, I can’t count how many times I’ve heard women say they didn’t apply for a job or promotion because they didn’t have all the requirements for the role as listed. In their view, to even be considered for a promotion, they need to have experience doing every aspect of every job requirement, which isn’t realistic.

As a manager, you know your team members’ competencies and skills. As part of development discussions, share your perspective on the key skills/competencies your employee brings, how it impacts the company and opportunities she may want to consider even before promotions become available. Have open dialogue with women to help them understand how their competencies map to success even if, on paper, they may not feel like their experience exactly fits the bill.

Reinforce the role

For many women, one of the most daunting things about assuming a new position is trying to figure out how that new role fits into their current life. Statistically, women often forgo promotions because they don’t know how the demands of a new role could fit into all their other responsibilities outside of work: mother, caretaker and so on.

As a manager, one of your critical roles is to reinforce that anyone from your team interested in pursuing a promotion will be supported as they tackle how they’ll be able to deliver their expertise in their own way. Having those developmental conversations that empower women to think about a role in terms of how they would do it instead of how it’s been done is vital.

Help her find her people

We don’t often take the time to think about the supporting elements of our success, but when encouraging someone to pursue career advancement, they matter. Encouraging the women on your team to think about the people in their network who will support their success in a new role will help set them up for both long- and short-term success. Your role isn’t just to manage; it’s also to coach and inspire members of your team to find their people.

Chances are that the women on your team already have a professional network, a group of like-minded people to share ideas, reach out to for support and commiserate with industry challenges. But prompting someone interested in a new opportunity to think about who she has around her who can inform her thinking as she moves to the next phase of her career will help her expand her network with intention — and that itself can have a massive impact.