Allyship for Managers: Four Strategies to Better Support Women in the Workplace

This month's celebration of outstanding women's accomplishments serves as a reminder for HR professionals to persist in breaking down systemic barriers in organizations. It underscores the need to empower managers to actively champion and support women in the workplace.

In March, International Women’s Day underscored the importance of investing in women to accelerate progress. According to McKinsey’s 2023 report, nine out of ten women under the age of 30 aim to advance in their careers, and three out of four envision themselves in senior leadership roles. The data reflects a surge in women’s aspirations, with 80 percent of women surveyed seeking to be promoted – a notable 10 increase from 2019. Among women of color, this aspiration climbs even higher, reaching 88 percent. 

However, despite the desire for advancement, there is a concerning trend: a gap in the transition of women from entry level positions to managerial roles. For every 100 men promoted to managerial positions, only 87 women ascend alongside them. This gap is more pronounced in the data for women of color, where only 73 were promoted, marking a decrease from 82 the year prior. Such disparities in promotions create a constrained talent pipeline, leaving fewer internal female candidates vying for senior leadership positions. 

Today, managers grapple with a more nuanced and multifaceted responsibility: supporting the well-being and professional growth of their employees to facilitate career advancement. As people managers, their role extends beyond traditional supervisory roles to encompass mentorship, coaching and advocacy. They are tasked with fostering talent, cultivating potential and creating an environment conducive to personal and professional flourishing. Yet, for managers who do not share the same gender identity, understanding and addressing the unique barriers faced by the women on their teams presents a different challenge.

As we celebrate the achievements of remarkable women this month, it serves as a poignant reminder for HR professionals to persist in dismantling systemic barriers within organizations, and equipping managers to champion and support women in the workplace. In the following sections, we will explore four strategies aimed at empowering HR professionals and managers to invest in women and nurture their growth of their abilities to set them up for success.

Table of Contents

Establishing Safe Spaces

Women tend to be more inclined to report microaggressions, express their development goals, and share their innovative ideas when they feel psychologically safe. Therefore, it is paramount for managers to cultivate a safe environment where their employees feel comfortable voicing concerns and offering feedback. Managers can establish a confidential and supportive rapport with their direct reports through the following recommendations:

Set expectations and establish ground rules for their 1:1 meetings, such as actively listening without interruption and maintaining confidentiality unless there is a need to escalate issues.

Encourage them to share their thoughts, concerns and feedback openly, even if it’s critical, and ensure that they will be addressed constructively. Follow up on any action items discussed to demonstrate accountability.

Acknowledge their emotions and validate their concerns to create a supportive environment.

Be transparent about their own thoughts, feelings and decision-making process to build trust and further encourage openness from their direct reports.

Include a recurring check-in during their 1:1 to invite any feedback on their own performance as a manager, gauge how they are feeling at work, and provide the opportunity to raise any concerns.

Some questions managers can ask during a check-in are: 

By asking these questions and establishing 1:1’s as a safe environment, managers can demonstrate their commitment to being an ally to the women (or any underrepresented group) on their team.

Support and Guide Women’s Professional Development

Women of different identities encounter challenges in their career that their managers may not fully comprehend or know how to address effectively. For instance, a white female manager may not grasp the psychological strain experienced by her Black female employee, who feels pressured to adjust her behavior to avoid being seen as intimidating and reinforcing negative stereotypes about Black individuals.

While it’s unrealistic to expect managers to offer personal guidance on every challenge or experience, they can still play a pivotal role in supporting their female employees. One approach is for managers to leverage their own network, both within or outside the organization, to connect female employees with mentorship, sponsorship and/or guidance, and may relate to their experiences. Other ways managers can demonstrate their investment in their female employees could be:

Scheduling quarterly meetings to discuss career growth and professional development. Seek to understand their goals, check whether they have the appropriate resources and identify areas in which they can provide further support.

Propose projects aligned to the skills they wish to develop or career interest, and offer guidance and support throughout these projects as needed. It is also important to ensure they are credited publicly for their accomplishments. An analysis of leadership development interviews found that women often credit their success to luck, and failures to their lack of skill. As such, celebrating their accomplishments and abilities provides encouragement, so when a promotion opens up, it is not a matter of luck, rather it’s their skills that allows them to make the most of the opportunity.

Allocate budget towards professional development to fund opportunities aimed at advancing their careers, such as attending external conferences or pursuing higher education.

Moreover, there is a need for an increased presence of male mentors and sponsors for women in professional settings. Senior male figures are hesitant to establish mentoring connections with women in fear of potential perceptions of impropriety. This reluctance denies women of valuable networking opportunities. Managers should assess whom they invest in and ensure equitable distribution of networking opportunities within their team.

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Understanding and Responding to Microaggressions

To practice allyship, managers must educate themselves on the historical and ongoing challenges women experience in the workplace, reflect on their own potential contributions to these issues, and remain open to listen to concerns. Part of this entails the capacity to identify, address and challenge microaggressions facing women in the workplace. For instance:

  • Using biased language that describes women as “bossy”, “calculated”, “cold” or “too nice to do a job”. Likeable women tend to be seen as less competent, and successful women are seen as less likeable.
  • Assuming the woman in the room is not the technical person, or in a leadership position. 
  • Questioning their judgment when they may have equal if not more experience, or may be a subject matter expert.
  • Assigning more administrative tasks to the woman on the team, rather than distributing them equally.
Below are steps for managers to tackle microaggressions in the workplace in different situations:

When Managers Encounter Themselves Verbalizing a Microaggression

  1. Stop, acknowledge, apologize and correct themselves.
  2. Educate themselves on the impact, reflect and learn.
  3. If appropriate, speak with your employee to apologize and commit to doing better.

When an Employee Reports a Microaggression to their Manager

  1. Listen and validate their emotions and experience.
  2. Ask what they want to do. Speak with the employee who directed the microaggression at them or engage with HR.
  3. Provide support such as mental health resources.
  4. Follow-up with the employee to make sure they are okay.

When a Manager Witnesses a Microaggression

  1. Stop the conversation, intervene and calmly correct the individual.
  2. Document the situation.
  3. Check on the employee. Listen and validate their emotions and experience.
  4. Ask what they want to do. The manager should speak with the employee who directed the microaggression, and the receiver of the microaggression should speak with the employee alone or with the manager/HR present.
  5. Provide support such as mental health resources.
  6. Follow-up with the employee to make sure they are okay.

It is crucial to note that gender microaggressions may intersect with other biases depending on the other dimensions of a woman’s identity. When confronted with microaggressions in the workplace, women are three times more likely to contemplate quitting, and four times more likely experience burnout. Ultimately, continuous, high-quality microaggression training for managers and teams is imperative to communicate the intolerance and impact of such behavior.

Offer Flexible Work Options

Flexible work options are a vital tool in supporting women. Studies have shown that flexibility not only helps women to stay in their jobs, but also decrease feelings of fatigue and burnout while increasing productivity, and fostered loyalty to their employers. Women rightfully prioritize achieving balance between their personal and professional lives, and seek higher flexibility around where and when they work. 

Managers can facilitate this by establishing set online hours, and granting employees the autonomy to manage their remaining work hours according to their personal commitments. They can demonstrate support for their work-life balance by being vocal about their own time away from work, such as spending time with their children, and refraining from work-related communications outside of office hours. Maintaining open communication channels is essential to understanding employees’ needs, preferences, and challenges, thereby enabling managers to find solutions that align with both their employees and business objectives.

Final Words

By embracing allyship, managers can leverage their positions to uplift and support the women on their teams. However, beyond strategies lies a deeper commitment—a commitment to continual learning, introspection, and action. Managers must actively engage in understanding the diverse experiences of the women they lead, advocating for their needs, and challenging biases within themselves and their teams.

It’s crucial for them not to rely on their female colleagues to educate or demonstrate allyship to them, or assume that every woman faces the same barriers. They should take it upon themselves to listen, commit to reflection furthering their education, and accept criticism with grace, even if it feels uncomfortable. 

Of course, the onus is not on managers alone. As we navigate the complexities of gender dynamics in the workplace, let us not forget the collective responsibility we share. HR professionals must provide the necessary support and resources to empower managers in their allyship journey by revisiting their policies, procedures, and training strategy to empower their managers, and provide them with the tools to uplift and invest in the female talent on their team. This may include reviewing reproductive health benefits, reintegration programs, parental leave policies, or integrating people management on manager evaluations. 

Together, we can foster a culture of inclusivity and equity, where every woman has the opportunity to thrive and succeed on her own terms. In the pursuit of gender equality, let us be steadfast allies, champions of change, and architects of a brighter, more equitable future for all.


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