How to Be a Workplace Ally
We’ve all heard the myth that women don’t support each other—but it’s not true. Women can be powerful allies at work, and there are simple things we can do every day to celebrate and advocate for our female coworkers. Together we can level the playing field and go further faster.
1. Make Sure Women’s Ideas are Heard
If you watch coworkers at the same level in meetings, you’ll likely notice that more men sit in the front and center seats, while women tend to gravitate toward the end of the table and edge of the room, away from positions that convey status. Women also get less airtime in group discussions.1 We are interrupted more—by both men and women2—and given less credit for our ideas.3
Set a good example by sitting front-and-center and speaking up in meetings—and encourage other women to do the same. Then look for ways to shape the conversation. When a woman is interrupted, interject and say you’d like to hear her finish. When a coworker runs away with a woman’s idea, remind everyone it originated with her by saying, “Great idea . . . thanks to Katie for surfacing it.” If you see a woman struggling to break into the conversation, say you’d like to hear other points of view. When you advocate for your female coworkers, they benefit—and you’re seen as a leader. Moreover, meetings are most effective when everyone’s best thinking is heard.
1. Make Sure Women’s Ideas are Heard
2. Challenge the Likeability Penalty
Women face a double standard that men don’t. Men are expected to be assertive and confident, so coworkers welcome their leadership. In contrast, women are expected to be nurturing and collaborative, so when we lead, we go against expectations—and often face pushback from men and women.6 The problem is that women need to assert ourselves to be effective. This “likeability penalty” often surfaces in the way women are described, both in passing and in performance reviews. When a woman speaks in a direct style or pushes her ideas, she is often called “aggressive” and “ambitious.” When a man does the same, he is seen as “confident” and “strong.”
When you hear a woman called “bossy” or “shrill,” request a specific example of what the woman did and then ask, “Would you have the same reaction if a man did the same thing?” In many cases, the answer will be no. When you’re having a negative response to a woman at work, ask yourself the same question and give her the benefit of the doubt. Odds are she’s just doing her job.
3. Celebrate Women’s Accomplishments
Women are often given less credit for successful outcomes and blamed more for failure.8 Moreover, women and men respond to recognition differently. Women often credit our accomplishments to external factors such as “getting lucky” and “help from others,” while men attribute theirs to innate qualities and skills.9 They own their success, and we undermine ours. Conversely, when women celebrate our own accomplishments, we are often penalized for self-promotion.10 As a result of these dynamics, women’s contributions can go unnoticed.
Look for opportunities to celebrate women’s accomplishments, and point out when women are being blamed unfairly for mistakes. Better yet, get together with a group of women and agree to celebrate one another’s successes whenever possible. Although women are often penalized for promoting ourselves, you can lift up other women, and they can do the same for you. When you introduce female coworkers, highlight their credentials and accomplishments—for example, you might say, “Katie was in charge of our most recent product launch, and it generated more sales than any other initiative this year.”
3. Celebrate Women’s Accomplishments
4. Encourage Women to Go for It
Women are prone to more intense self-doubt than men, and it is not because we’re missing a special confidence gene.13 Women face an uneven playing field at work. This bias is so pronounced that simply changing the name on a résumé from a woman’s to a man’s increases a candidate’s hireability by 61 percent.14 Because female performance is frequently underestimated, women need to work harder to prove we’re just as capable15 and are more likely to miss out on key assignments, promotions, and raises.16 Women even tend to underestimate our own performance and are more likely to attribute our failures to lack of ability. Because the workplace is harder on women—and we are harder on ourselves—our confidence often erodes. As a result, many women are less likely to put themselves forward for promotions or negotiate.
Look for opportunities to boost other women’s confidence and encourage them to go for it. If a coworker tells you she’s not ready for a new project or position, remind her what she’s already accomplished and offer to be a thought buddy while she gets up to speed . . . or “fakes it till she makes it”. When it’s time to negotiate, encourage her to ask for more and role-play with her to prepare for the discussion.
5. Give Women Direct Feedback
Women often receive less—and less helpful—feedback. While men get specific recommendations for improving their performance, women hear more generic feedback that’s harder to act on, such as “Good job” or “You need more presence in meetings."20 Men may hesitate to give critical feedback to women for fear of eliciting an emotional response21—and this is likely the case for women, too. Unfortunately, this lack of input slows women down; it’s hard to build skills and advance if you don’t know what to do.
Look for opportunities to give the women you work with input that can help them learn and grow, and remember that holding back for fear you’ll upset someone doesn’t benefit her. Whenever possible, share your feedback live and in the moment, when it’s most effective. Treat feedback as a gift and solicit it often—you’ll benefit from the input, and ideally your female coworkers will follow your lead.
5. Give Women Direct Feedback
6. Mentor and Sponsor Other Women
Mentorship and sponsorship are key drivers of success, but unfortunately women often miss out. Men tend to gravitate toward mentoring other men because they have shared interests—in fact, two-thirds of the men who participated in our Women in the Workplace study reported that their mentors were mostly men.24 In addition, women are less likely to have mentors who advocate for and promote them, and this type of sponsorship is ultimately what opens doors and creates opportunities.25 These disparities help explain why fewer women end up in leadership roles.
Commit the time and energy to mentor another woman. If you’re early in your career, don’t underestimate the value of your input—you may have just been through what a woman starting out is experiencing. If you’re more senior, go beyond offering advice and use your influence to advocate for your mentee. Sponsorship is a great way for female leaders to reach back to help women early in their careers.
- "Christopher Karpowitz, Tali Mendelberg, and Lee Shaker, “Gender Inequality in Deliberative Participation,” American Political Science Review 106, no. 3 (2012): 533–47, journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0003055412000329; Kieran Snyder, “How to Get Ahead as a Woman in Tech: Interrupt Men,” Slate, July 23, 2014, slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2014/07/23/study_men_interrupt_women_more_in_tech_workplaces_but_high_ranking_women.html; Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey, What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know (New York: NYU Press, 2014).
- Snyder, “How to Get Ahead as a Woman in Tech.”
- Adrienne B. Hancock and Benjamin J. Rubin, “Influence of Communication Partner’s Gender on Language,” Journal of Language and Social Psychology 34, no. 1 (2015): 46–64, jls.sagepub.com/content/34/1/46.full.pdf+html.
- Christopher F. Karpowitz, Tali Mendelberg, Lee Shaker, “Gender Inequality in Deliberative Participation,” American Political Science Review 106, no. 3 (2012): 533–47
- Kristin Byron, “Male and Female Managers’ Ability to ‘Read’ Emotions: Relationships with Supervisor’s Performance Rating and Subordinates’ Satisfaction Rating,” Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 80 (2007): 713–33; Jeanna Bryner, “Female Bosses Expected to Be More Understanding,” LiveScience, December 20, 2007, livescience.com/4735-female-bosses-expected-understanding.html.
- Madeline E. Heilman, “Gender Stereotypes and Workplace Bias,” Research in Organizational Behavior 32 (2012): 113–15.
- Kieran Snyder, “The Abrasiveness Trap: High-Achieving Men and Women Are Described Differently in Reviews,” Fortune, August 26, 2014, fortune.com/2014/08/26/performance-review-gender-bias.
- Madeline E. Heilman and Michelle C. Hayes, “No Credit Where Credit Is Due: Attributional Rationalization of Women’s Success in Male-Female Teams,” Journal of Applied Psychology 90, no. 5 (2005): 905–26; Michelle C. Hayes and Jason S. Lawrence, “Who’s to Blame? Attributions of Blame in Unsuccessful Mixed-Sex Work Teams,” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 34, no. 6 (2012): 558–64.
- Sylvia Beyer, “Gender Differences in Causal Attributions by College Students of Performance on Course Examinations,” Current Psychology 17, no. 4 (1998): 346–58.
- For a review of research see Laurie A. Rudman et al., “Reactions to Vanguards: Advances in Backlash Theory,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, ed. Patricia Devine and Ashby Plant (San Diego: Academic Press, 2012), 167; Laurie A. Rudman, “Self-Promotion as a Risk Factor for Women: The Costs and Benefits of Counterstereotypical Impression Management,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74, no. 3 (1998): 629–45.
- Heather Sarsons, “Gender Differences in Recognition for Group Work,” Working Paper (2016), scholar.harvard.edu/sarsons/publications/note-gender-differences-recognition-group-work.
- Georges Desvaux, Sandrine Devillard-Hoellinger, and Mary C. Meaney, “A Business Case for Women,” The McKinsey Quarterly, September 2008, 4, womenscolleges.org/files/pdfs/BusinessCaseforWomen.pdf.
- Gina Gibson-Beverly and Jonathan P. Schwartz, “Attachment, Entitlement, and the Impostor Phenomenon in Female Graduate Students,” Journal of College Counseling 11, no. 2 (2008): 120–21; Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes, “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention,” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice 15, no. 3 (1978): 241–47.
- Rhea E. Steinpreis, Katie A. Anders, and Dawn Ritzke, “The Impact of Gender on the Review of Curricula Vitae of Job Applicants and Tenure Candidates: A National Empirical Study,” Sex Roles 41, nos. 7–8 (1999): 509–28.
- Williams and Dempsey, What Works for Women at Work.
- Madeline E. Heilman et al., “Penalties for Success: Reactions to Women Who Succeed at Male Gender-Typed Tasks,” Journal of Applied Psychology 89, no. 3 (2004): 416–27; Laurie A. Rudman and Peter Glick, “Prescriptive Gender Stereotypes and Backlash Toward Agentic Women,” Journal of Social Issues 57, no. 4 (2001): 743–62; Laurie A. Rudman and Peter Glick, “Feminized Management and Backlash Toward Agentic Women: The Hidden Costs to Women of a Kinder, Gentler Image of Middle Managers,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77, no. 5 (1999): 1004–10; Rudman, “Self-Promotion as a Risk Factor for Women.”
- Georges Desvaux, Sandrine Devillard-Hoellinger, and Mary C. Meaney, “A Business Case for Women,” The McKinsey Quarterly, September 2008, 4, talentnaardetop.nl/uploaded_files/document/2008_A_business_case_for_women.pdf.
- Research cited by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, “The Confidence Gap,” Atlantic, May 2014, theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/04/the-confidence-gap/359815. See also Lydia Frank, “How the Gender Pay Gap Widens as Women Get Promoted,” Harvard Business Review, November 5, 2015, hbr.org/2015/11/how-the-gender-pay-gap-widens-as-women-get-promoted.
- Emily T. Amanatullah and Michael W. Morris, “Negotiating Gender Roles: Gender Differences in Assertive Negotiating Are Mediated by Women’s Fear of Backlash and Attenuated When Negotiating on Behalf of Others,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 98, no. 2 (2010): 256– 67; Hannah Riley Bowles et al., “Constraints and Triggers: Situational Mechanics of Gender in Negotiations,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 89, no. 6 (2005): 951–65.
- Shelley Correll and Caroline Simard, “Research: Vague Feedback Is Holding Women Back,” Harvard Business Review, April 29, 2016, hbr.org/2016/04/research-vague-feedback-is-holding-women-back.
- For a review of research see Carol T. Kulik, Isabel Metz, and Jill A. Gould, “In the Company of Women: The Well-Being Consequences of Working with (and for) Women,” in Handbook on Well-Being of Working Women, ed. Mary L. Connerley and Jiyun Wu (New York: Springer, 2016), 189; Sarah Dinolfo, Christine Silva, and Nancy M. Carter, High-Potentials in the Pipeline: Leaders Pay It Forward, Catalyst (2012); K. E. O’Brien, A. Biga, S. R. Kessler, and T. D. Allen, “A Meta-Analytic Investigation of Gender Differences in Mentoring,” Journal of Management 36, no. 2 (2010): 537–54, jom.sagepub.com/content/36/2/537.short.
- LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace 2015, womenintheworkplace.com/ui/pdfs/Women_in_the_Workplace_2015.pdf?v=5
- Herminia Ibarra, Nancy M. Carter, and Christine Silva, “Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women,” Harvard Business Review, September 2010, hbr.org/2010/09/why-men-still-get-more-promotions-than-women