Daily Briefing

Becoming an ally: What women leaders want you to know


Data shows that women still lag behind men in representation in senior leadership positions. Advisory Board's managing director of workplace culture Micha'le Simmons sat down with women in healthcare leadership roles to talk about times they could have used an ally and what they think could make a real difference in the professional trajectories of women.

Read a lightly edited excerpt from the interview below and download the episode for the full conversation.

Micha'le Simmons: We know that allyship requires that we see, name, and disrupt the ways that systems of oppression like racism and sexism show up in our world. We can't expect all of the work to fall on people who are underrepresented. It's not fair and it's not effective.

So I'm wondering, Elishae, starting with you, in what ways have allies or co-conspirators showed up for you without you having to ask, and what lessons might others learn from this?

Elishae Johnson: Yes, so I've actually experienced this a few times in my career. There's one in particular that stands out for me. An HR leader who is a Black woman noticed that I was in a different pay grade than other leaders in the same leadership level and took it upon herself.

And so all of this, the discovery of it, the repair, was unbeknownst to me. I learned after she had taken this up and addressed it with the executive team and then had come to me and said, "Hey, I noticed this about your pay, and I just want you to know that it has been resolved and communicated what the change was." And I said to her that I was appreciative because I really genuinely was, one, I didn't know. And so to know that someone had done this on their own accord, recognized it, repaired it, and I really didn't have to do any self-advocacy, meant a lot to me.

But when I said thank you to her, she said, "you don't need to be grateful to me because this was the right thing to do." And that really made a difference to me. The thing to take away from that is sometimes when we think about equity work, we think about it at the macro level, and we sometimes don't always reflect on the things that happen on the individual micro level from person to person. And not all people scream equity. There are some folks who identify with it from a, "this is the right thing to do," perspective.

Simmons: I love that example too, because there are a lot of things that are going on behind the scenes, rooms that we aren't in, and we don't even know what opportunities we're not getting. Whether that be about pay or promotion or am I being considered as a successor for a next level role? You can't advocate for yourself in those rooms. And so someone who has access to more power, whether that be because of their gender or race or position in the organization and information that they have access to, can be a game changer.

Jennifer Kleven: It's a place where I see having women in leadership positions and people of color in leadership positions be really exciting because those people are sitting at those tables and they just have a perspective that might be different than someone who had come before them.

Simmons: Absolutely. And to add on to that, why it's important that there be more than one at the table, because when it's one person of color or one woman at the table, it's too much of a burden for that person to have to take that on together. And why it's important too, for allies to consider, "what's my role in this work?"

I'm sure we all know that the data still shows that women lag behind men in representation in senior leadership positions. And there are so many messages that women internalize as we try to climb the corporate ladder, we think, I have to be perfect. I have to execute flawlessly. I have to be assertive, but not bossy.

And there have been studies that have shown that men will apply for roles that they aren't qualified for while women feel that they have to exceed the qualifications to be ready to apply to that role. So even with all of the accomplishment that women bring, we often deal with imposter syndrome. And it's that fear of exposure of being found out as a fraud.

So there's already this external tax, I'm working so hard to prove myself, and then there's this very real internal dialogue that can compromise our mental health and wellbeing.

Jenny, I'm wondering about your experiences navigating some of those internal messages that might have to deal with imposter syndrome. And what's the role that allies, whether those were peers, mentors, bosses, how have they helped in navigating those messages?

Kleven: It's interesting you'd asked that, Micha'le, because I think imposter syndrome is something that particularly really recently I've dealt with again, and I think it comes up each time you start to climb the ladder, if you will, in an organization or you switch roles and think, oh my gosh, now I'm in this role. Now what do I do?

And sometimes it's that I, like you said, have perceptions of myself that other people may not see. But I realized a while ago, now that I hold myself to this external perception of the Enjoli ad from the '80s, which is a long time ago. But it was the woman who could bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan, take care of her husband, and it was a 24-hour day. That was the tagline, was the 12-hour perfume for the 24-hour woman. And that is just a standard to which we should not hold ourselves.

But I think from the time I was a pretty little kid growing up with those things, the working woman was someone who could take care of the family and make sure that that was all taken care of and make sure that you were excelling at being really good at what you were doing at work. And so in my own head, I think those were the standards to which I held myself. And over my career, figuring out how to navigate in that space for myself has been something I've voiced, dealt with, said.

Life is not a real balance. It's kind of an integration. And it means sometimes you got to work at some things and sometimes you're doing other things and you aren't going to be an A student all the way across. I know that I've struggled from the time I was little too, not wanting to be the smart girl. That wasn't always looked on as a good thing or the popular thing to be, wasn't the smart girl.

And overcoming that, I think that's where the allies come in, that I have women friends who are also the smart girls. Having them be supportive and being able to talk about these things openly has been wonderful. And then I also have men both as friends and colleagues who will point out things like you said, "you know, should apply for that because I would never think of not having those qualifications. You'd do great. And I think you have a lot of skills."

And whether that's having a conversation as an aside or whether that's going, I can think of particular mentors and leaders who I've had who have come to me and said, "I think you should try this." And I say, "oh, but I don't have those qualifications." And these are men in particular, actually, who've said, "no, you actually do, and it would be great to have you in this role."

I think those, if I can internalize them, and again, sometimes this is just me getting in my own way, give me the strength and ability to move forward, but it takes a lot of reinforcement. It's a lot of step back and say, "oh, wait a minute, I'm doing it. Okay, now I'm going to start." So it takes practice and giving yourself some grace to say, "this isn't easy and I need lots of people around me to be able to talk with and get support from." Whether those are my superiors or my colleagues, friends, et cetera. And both men and women. A lot of times from the men, it's really powerful coming from the men in my life to say, "no, you can do this."

Kelley Bahr: Yeah. I would agree with you, Jenny. I mean, that's really resonating with me too because I think about a position change for myself in the last year and how, when you kind of sink down and you need someone to pick you up and hearing you say that, it was actually a lot of male colleagues that I feel like almost resonated stronger with me as I reflect back who kind of pulled me aside and said, "Hey, I think you should continue to move forward and look at other opportunities for yourself, and you have the talents and the commitment to do it." So that's pretty powerful. I agree with you.

Kleven: The other thing I've noticed, once you're in that role that's kind of cool, is that then as long as you're willing to speak, which does take some practice as well, and learning to use your authentic voice and not your, "I'm just trying to say this and apologize. I know I don't know, but..." Getting that out of your vocabulary take practice, because that has been something I've incorporated for a long time. "Oh, I'm so sorry. I must not have heard this right."

Not apologizing, etc., but the things like you brought up earlier, Elishae, with noticing the discrepancies that may be there and then calling it to those colleagues' attention who are sitting at that table and their ability to say, "huh, I never would've thought of that." And just creating that space where people cannot know and be, I noticed the more women I have in my leadership circle, the more I see this ability for everyone in the room, men and women, both to be vulnerable. And it's just a really cool thing to watch. We're just starting to see it happen, I think. But it opens us up to making changes that need to get made.


The manager's guide to inclusion and belonging

Tools to navigate specific leadership challenges

The foundations of inclusive leadership are foundations of good leadership more generally: purpose, self-awareness, humility, curiosity, and collaboration. These core leadership competencies foster an environment where team members feel seen, safe, respected, and, ultimately, a sense of belonging. These tools will help you navigate specific leadership challenges using inclusive leadership.


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