As you rise in your organization and gain more management responsibility, you may be wondering what you can do to foster a more inclusive and equitable culture within your team and across the organization. That's a big question, so here I'll focus on just one piece—gender equity. While women make up over half of the college-educated workforce in the United States, for example, they are still vastly underrepresented in corporate leadership ranks. So, why haven't organizations made more progress in promoting women?

I worked with a colleague, HBS professor Boris Groysberg, to look into this more deeply. We found that gender biases affect women at all stages of their careers and create barriers to advancement. Identifying and understanding the commonalities in many women's experiences is an important first step to overcoming the gender equity challenge. For example:

  • Women often experience a different onboarding process than men.
  • Younger women often find it difficult to find mentors or to receive specific, actionable feedback, which are both keys to developing new skills and moving up.
  • Mid-career women with family responsibilities often face a perception that they are not as committed to work as their peers who are male or single, and as a result, don't hear about challenging developmental and high-profile assignments.
  • Once they reach higher levels of leadership, women discover they are held to different standards and scrutinized more closely because they are different from the “masculine norm” of leadership.
  • While organizations may start out hiring a good number of women, it's not hard to see why these experiences lead to retention problems—and a significant loss of talent for the organization.

    Finding and eliminating systemic barriers to women's growth and development will help to create better-performing, more sustainable organizations. The value goes beyond helping women. By helping to break down stereotypes and rigid norms around gender roles, you can enable people of any gender to bring their best selves to work.

    But not all of us can change company policy from the top. So, what can you do to make experiences more equitable? Here are a few ways you can become part of the solution. And remember, even if you are not a woman, you can be a strong ally for women rising in your organization. In fact, research has shown that men's efforts to advance gender equity are especially effective at encouraging change.

    1. Avoid being complacent. Even the organizations most dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion still have some work to do. Be on the lookout for gender disparities in how employees are treated in all aspects of work life—from hiring and onboarding, to distributing assignments, to managing performance and promotions.
    2. Undermine stereotypes. If you're a man, model behavior that makes it safer for all men—and all people—to lean into caregiving. Take your full parental leave, for example, and make your choice visible, showing that your role outside work is important too. By disrupting stereotypical expectations, you can help shift your company culture to a more equitable one for everybody.
    3. Get to the root of the problem. If your group or department has few women, or too many women have left, try to get to the bottom of the cause. Does recruiting need to change? Is some aspect of the culture inhospitable to women? Are they facing barriers to advancement?
    4. Set an inclusive, equitable tone. Call out biased speech or behavior when you see it and make it clear that everyone is valued. That goes double for anything directed at the people who report to you or to members of your team.
    5. Be objective. When you're handing out assignments or evaluating employee performance, make sure you are making choices based on objective, job-related criteria, not on assumptions that may reflect gender biases. These assumptions aren't always conscious, but taking time to reflect on the reasoning behind your decisions can help you neutralize the influence of such biases.
    6. Give sufficient time and feedback. While it's natural to gravitate primarily or exclusively toward people similar to you, strive to overcome that tendency, and make sure to spend meaningful time with those who don't share your identity. It might take additional time to build rapport with employees and colleagues who don't share your background, but they need and want the same kind of face time, support, and feedback as others do—and research suggests that you yourself will benefit greatly from these connections.
    7. Find opportunities to help others grow. Whether or not you're a manager, you should understand that everyone needs sponsors, coaches, and mentors. You can mentor newer or younger employees formally or informally or be a peer coach for someone with complementary skills. If you are a woman who has succeeded in moving up in your organization, be aware that others will look to you as an example of what is possible for them, and encourage your male peers to join you in developing junior women to follow in your footsteps.

    It's tempting to continue with business as usual—after all, assessing your own biases and shifting the way you think and act at work can be hard. By doing your part to close the gender gap, however, you can help your organization hold onto talented women and ensure that each team member achieves their full potential.

    Interested in Learning More?

    Check out these resources on gender equity.

    Book: Glass Half Broken, Shattering the Barriers that Still Hold Women Back at Work, by Colleen Ammerman and Boris Groysberg, Harvard Business Review Press, 2021

    HBS Race, Gender, and Equity Initiative

    Podcast: Colleen Ammerman: Gender and Human Capital

    Executive Insights: Improving Gender Equity in Your Organization

About the Author

Colleen Ammerman is the Director of the Race, Gender and Equity Initiative at Harvard Business School.