Off the top of my head, I can think of lots of ways leaders are trying to support talented women in their companies--maternity leave, pay transparency and implementing policies to ensure a fair representation of ladies in the C-suite or boards, for example. But to really reach for the top, women need more than to be thrown these logistical bones. They also need the internal confidence that tells them they'll make a difference and be successful if they tap the resources you offer to them.
So what can you offer or make sure women do to feel powerful enough?
Someone to look up to
Neha Narkhede, CTO and Co-Founder at Confluent, works in male-dominated Silicon Valley. She says the most critical thing women need is a great role model.
"My parents raised me to believe in myself regardless of gender," Narkhede says. "I grew up with role models believing women can run countries, police forces, kingdoms and win wars. [...] There's the belief that you 'can't be what you can't see', so I grew up with a direct view of women who were in power, making their own decisions and following their instincts. [...] I still have times where I feel disappointed [..., but] the difference for me is, I'm armed with the determination to fight through it and have an established belief system and community to tap into."
Narkhede says that, without this foundation, she easily could have been more hesitant or afraid to take risks. She also asserts that facing the challenges of being a women in a male-dominated field requires additional persistence and grit, and that knowing the stories of those who went before her helped her to push forward.
Kristina McCoobery, COO at INVNT, echos Narkhede. She describes her biggest role models--her mother, Eva Swedlund; Carolyn Buck Luce, Managing Partner at Imaginal Labs; and Michele DiNello, Senior Director Communications at Subway--as having tremendous drive and fearless when embracing new experiences. And through watching her mother sacrifice, she became sure she wanted to start her own business instead of working tirelessly for someone else.
Clinical psychologist Kaitlyn Wilbur Smith summarizes why role models are so powerful beyond these anecdotal supports.
"Protective factors for youth include supportive relationships, engagement and meaningful activities and adaptive emotional regulation. When children have other adults in their lives--whether they be parents, teachers, coaches or mentors--who support and validate their experiences, they are less likely to be ridden by worries and shame and more likely to seek out challenges and to persevere in the face of adversity."
Getting the success stories to multiply
"Young girls today still have very few women in positions of power to look up to, specifically in tech roles," says Narkhede. "There is also the cultural pressure of not being cool if you are more interested in math and science. While there is a greater conversation happening around the world about women fighting for equal pay, better opportunities and better treatment in all industries, there's still a need for us as a society to encourage women to be ambitious, for women to help one another out and slowly but surely create a more visible community of powerful women for young girls to see and aspire to be like."
"There is still an underlying feeling that business is a man's world," McCoobery says bluntly.
McCoobery also asserts that, because there are so few women at the top, career women often develop a Darwinian attitude to achieve success and don't help each other. That has to end--real change requires women to pass the ladder down.
"I encourage our women to praise, collaborate and challenge one another," McCoobery says. "Take a seat at the table. When you see women in rising leadership positions, it will be modeled by others."
But what if you or other ladies honestly can't find a mentor in your workplace? Find out about and take strength from others who have forged their own paths! Narkhede, for instance, says she particularly looked up to people such as Indira Gandhi (India's first woman prime minister) and Kiran Bedi (India's first woman Indian Police Service officer). And you don't need to be lunch buddies with Indra Nooyi or Oprah to admire them and see what they do right.
McCoobery has two additional suggestions: Read books by successful women (e.g., Powerful by Patty McCord, Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg) and join an organization of professional women so you can network and meet other like-minded career women.
Having more women in leadership positions, as McCoobery asserts, is as good for business as it is for the women. But getting them there requires them to believe in their own moxie, and that requires a clear picture of possibility and self, a sense of connection and community. Do a role call of your company's role models. If you come up on the short side, don't be afraid to clean house and rework. The ultimate goal is to have everybody on your team willing and able to guide somebody else.