How to Be an Ally to Women in the Workplace

March 15, 2021


It started as a school project in 1978. Hundreds of students in a school district in Sonoma, Calif., contributed to a “Real Woman” essay contest. The town even held a parade in downtown Santa Rosa.

As educators and communities across the country adopted the idea to commemorate women’s achievements in history, the idea reached the White House, and in 1980, a presidential proclamation declared the week of March 8 as Women’s History Week. Congress passed the public law in 1981 and the national celebration began the following year. After six years of petitioning, the event was expanded to the entire month of March, and the United States has officially recognized Women’s History Month each March since 1987.

March 8 also marks International Women’s Day, a global celebration that started out of labor movements at the turn of the 20th century. It gained wider observance in the United States and several European countries in 1911 (originally on March 19) and has been sponsored by the United Nations since 1975 “to recognize the fact that securing peace and social progress and the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms require the active participation, equality and development of women; and to acknowledge the contribution of women to the strengthening of international peace and security.” The resolution was adopted by the U.N. in December 1977.

While women’s accomplishments throughout history continue to push through in educational programming at public schools and universities, as well as mainstream news and media — how many people first learned about NASA’s Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan in the movie Hidden Figures instead of a lesson in grade school? — many workplaces and industries have been slow to close the gender gap.

In their pivotal 2003 book, Women Don’t Ask, authors Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever explain how our institutions, child-rearing practices, and implicit assumptions have discouraged women for asking for what they want at work and at home. From research and interviews, the authors found that this social construct is learned from an early age. “As a society, we teach women that it is not appropriate or ‘feminine’ for them to focus on what they want, assert their own ambitions, and pursue their self-interest — and we don’t like it when they do.” (Read more in a Q&A with the authors here.)

The pandemic has only exacerbated the gender gap, as women left the workforce in droves in 2020 and early 2021, often forced to make difficult decisions between their career and being caregivers to their children who are distance learning at home, or due to fewer options for childcare. Between February and October 2020, nearly 2.2 million women left the labor force, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC).

In September 2020 alone, four times as many women left the workforce as compared to men, roughly 865,000 women compared to 216,000 men. The numbers also account for job loss and layoffs, noting a large percentage of women working in the service, food, and hospitality industries.

The NWLC’s most recent analysis, based on statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLA), reported that, in January 2021, another 275,000 women left the labor force, meaning they are no longer working or looking for work. The BLA also found higher rates of loss for Black women, Latinas, younger women of color, and women with disabilities. “Before the pandemic, women’s labor force participation rate had not been this low since 1988,” according the NWLC report.

This is a critical inflection point for employers and the U.S. economy, and women’s advocacy groups are asking for policy changes that could make a real improvement in the long-term to reverse these setbacks for working women. “COVID-19 is hard on women because the U.S. economy is hard on women, and this virus excels at taking existing tensions and ratcheting them up,” say labor-market researchers Nicole Bateman and Martha Ross, a research analyst and senior fellow, respectively, at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings Institute.

“This will have a significant negative effect on women’s employment and labor force participation rates, which will in turn have a negative effect not only on both current and future earnings but also on retirement security and gender equity in workplaces and homes,” according to the Center for American Progress.

So, how do we support the women in our workplace as we continue to address the challenges presented by the pandemic — and retain those employees long after this chapter for a strong, empowering culture at work?

For many companies, it starts with addressing bias and inequities that existed before 2020 and encouraging men and nonbinary individuals to be allies who support female-identifying and transgender women employees. (While there is a spectrum of gender identities, it should be noted that the research in this article addresses mostly binary cisgender male and cisgender female roles, meaning individuals who identify with the biological sex they were assigned at birth.)

11 Ways to Be a Better Ally to Working Women

1. Be aware of gender bias. Put simply, gender bias is a preference for one gender over another. It’s a form of unconscious bias, or implicit bias, that affects our attitudes and behaviors toward one gender through our own education, background, or perspective.

In the workplace, it can show up as assigning women administrative duties, for example, to fetch coffee, restock supplies, or order lunch because you assume women enjoy caregiving responsibilities. (To learn about your own implicit bias, take the Harvard University quiz.)

2. Address sexism in the moment. Speaking up when inappropriate comments are made in meetings or other work settings reaffirms that sexism won’t be tolerated. If the comment isn’t explicit, asking “What did you mean by that?” or “When I hear you say that, I’m concerned you’re not seeing her point, which is important. Was that your intention?” can create space for correction from the speaker, allow those involved in the conversation to rethink their language, and shift old patterns and behaviors to more inclusive discussions.

3. Listen more than you speak. Allyship means listening more and with intention, avoiding offering your perspective unless asked, and not transferring your emotions whether guilt or shame onto that person. Resist the urge to fix the situation and be an empathetic ear instead. Being empathetic means you’ll be “feeling with someone else… [versus] feeling for someone else,” says Alexandra Smith, MA, LPCC, in “5 Tips to Cultivate Empathy.”

4. Give equal pay. Women continue to consistently earn less than men for the same jobs with the same qualifications, and the gap is wider for women of color. The Center for American Progress reviewed data from the Census Bureau, and found, as of 2018, women earned on average 82 cents for every $1 earned by men of all races. Legislative policies, such as the Paycheck Fairness Act, seek to make federal changes, but all companies can review wages for all positions and start to close the gender gap.

5. Advocate for advancement. According to the McKinsey & Company Women in the Workplace 2020 report, “the ‘broken rung’ was still a major barrier in 2019,” noting that, “For the sixth year in a row, women continued to lose ground at the first step up to manager.” Identify a career path for the women in your workforce and encourage advancement when opportunities arise.

6. Understand the burden of emotional labor. Before the pandemic, studies found that women on average were doing twice as much unpaid care as men, meaning the shopping, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of kids and parents, for example, were more often handled in the household by women, according to the BLA American Time Use Survey. Between paid and unpaid work, women miss out on self-care time and report higher stress than men. (If you share a household with a partner, learn how to make it an equitable one with these tips.)

7. Explore flex hours for employees. “Our current circumstances have opened our eyes to what’s possible when it comes to flex time,” says Jamie Martin, vice president of content strategy at Life Time, editor in chief of Experience Life magazine, and member of Women Encouraging Leadership at Life Time. When many companies switched to remote work due to the pandemic, employees and teams learned how to be more flexible with their time. They also saw the benefits, personally, with professional benefits of increased productivity by 35 to 40 percent, stronger performance and retention, increased engagement, and more profitability, with a typical employer saving an average of $11,000 per half-time telecommuter per year, according to estimates from Global Workplace Analytics.

There are other considerations for employees and supervisors to keep in mind, such as clear communication, expectations, and boundaries. Remote workers often engage in longer hours, leading to more burnout; setting regular time to connect can help address challenges. (Find eight tips for healthier remote work schedule here.)

8. Be a mentor. Advice from colleagues can be beneficial to everyone in the workplace, but women are 24 percent less likely than men to get advice from senior leaders, according to LeanIn.org and the McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace 2019 report. (Discover ways to make the mentor–mentee relationship mutually beneficial in “The Value of Mentoring.”)

9. Make your workplace welcoming for parents. The United States is the only high-income country in the world that doesn’t mandate paid leave for workers, though that trend has been changing as more companies enact new policies and expand PTO. As more companies are electing to invest in paid maternity and paternity leave programs, in U.S. organizations larger than 50 employees, workers jobs are protected under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act to provide up to 12 weeks unpaid leave. Paid options, such as the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, which was signed last year, makes paid parental leave available to certain categories of federal workers.

Expanding PTO, sick-time policies, and flex-time or job-sharing options can improve hiring and retention as well. As new moms return to the workplace, ensure comfortable and private spaces for breastfeeding moms to pump, leaving time between meetings (and keeping them to 2 hours or less) to do so, and providing private mini fridges when possible to store breastmilk. (Find more ways to be kind to a new mom here.)

10. Don’t make assumptions about women at your work. Not all women want to have children. Some working women are caring for aging parents; others without caregiving duties shouldn’t be expected to work more hours. And working mothers should still be considered for the same jobs and duties, including work travel. A supportive workplace means open-mindedness and offering opportunities for individuals to make their own best choices.

11. Donate to organizations that lobby for women’s rights. Groups such the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the National Organization for Women (NOW), and the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) focus on advocating for women and girls for equal rights, positive societal change, and policy modification for equality.



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