- Changing structures and processes can center inclusivity, intersectionality, and mental health at work.
- Inclusive work environments require a long-term commitment to changing business practices.
- To retain top talent, quality of life should be factored into restructuring business practices.
This post is part of my subseries on how organizations can transform leadership development for women, as described through the eyes of women’s lived experiences and where gaps remain.
In this post, I explore the intersectionality of gender, age, and quality of life factors for women in leadership, through the eyes of Lena West, a writer, speaker, inclusive business growth strategist, and founding director of CEO Rising, a virtual business accelerator.
Lena West has had her share of challenges in her career journey. One significant experience was ageism, but not in the way most people would expect. Lena shares, "I was penalized for being too young. I was doing technical work in the IT field for major corporations as a junior consultant under a more senior leader, who I think was a little threatened by my skills. He literally said to me, 'You're not as good as you think you are. All of you young people think you're better than you really are.'"
As a young professional just starting her career, Lena felt hurt and offended by this comment. She made intentional decisions about how she showed up in meetings and focused on speaking about her accomplishments rather than her age.
"I knew I was talented. I knew that what I was experiencing from this senior leader was him trying to stifle me and keep me stagnant. I didn't have the words at the time to verbalize how I felt. I just knew I was offended. I was hurt. And I also knew he was wrong. I didn't know what to say. I just knew I had to take action. Otherwise, that was going to be my story in that environment. I became my own best advocate."
Through her experiences, Lena has learned the importance of being an advocate for herself and for others.
“It wasn't until I started being my own advocate in meetings and asking for [larger] network rollout projects that I actually started being assigned to those types of projects.”
She has taken this lesson and applied it to her own business, CEO Rising, which has a 100% remote team. Lena shares, "We've been remote before it was cool—we were 100% virtual since we started. But about three years ago, I really took a hard look at my business model. It was around the time when predatory business practices were really starting to ramp up in the online coaching and consulting space—they were using false urgency and agitating pain to gain business."
That's when she realized that she could create a business that aligned with her values and could help her, and her employees, feel supported.
She instituted unlimited and mandatory paid time off, and lunch-and-learn sessions about mental health—what she calls “centering quality of life."
The time off policies are managed in several ways. For example, the team has Fridays off and instead of trying to squeeze five days of work into four, they learn how to work more effectively and efficiently by prioritizing their work and “focusing on what absolutely must get done within the four days.”
It’s an intentional investment. Lena says:
“I don't believe there are people problems, I believe there are process problems. Once you start to change the structure and process of how you do business, you'd be surprised what you can accomplish.”
Lena believes that changing the structure and process of how you do business can create a positive work environment that centers inclusivity, intersectionality, and mental health.
In fact, Lena is leading the way for a new age of how we do work and how women, in particular, need to be supported in the face of significant backsliding on women’s mental health and economic outcomes. The World Economic Forum’s assessment from January 2023 indicates that “an estimated $300 million investment into research focused on women could yield a $13 billion economic return … and years of productivity returned to the global workforce” and that “societies that prioritize women’s health show increased productivity across generations.”
And the Center for Creative Leadership’s research on women in the workplace indicates that in general having more women in the workplace translates into lower burnout and improved employee engagement and retention for all employees, not just women. Imagine the impact when those women also feel supported.
What are some things that organizations can do to create an inclusive work culture where women, and all people, thrive and want to stay?
Based on her experiences, Lena shares five recommendations:
- Create a culture of open communication: Organizations should be willing to have hard conversations with their teams about their experiences, and should actively seek feedback without fear of penalty. Creating a culture where employees feel comfortable expressing their concerns and providing feedback can help identify and address issues that may be hindering women's success at work. Lena adds: “Do not assume you already know. Go to them and ask and be willing to hear the hard feedback—it's only going to make your organization better.”
- Commit to long-term change: Achieving gender equality in the workplace requires a long-term vision and commitment. Organizations should be willing to invest in structural changes that promote a supportive and inclusive work culture, such as revising policies and procedures, addressing unconscious biases, and promoting diversity and inclusion at all levels of the organization. Lena recalls, “It took me two years to roll our changes out structurally. It’s a long-term vision. The outcomes are going to be an outstanding organization and a place where people actually enjoy working. You'll be able to attract the types of talent that affect change—talent that can grow your company.”
- Make asking for feedback a habit at the team and at the organizational level. At the organizational level, this includes regularly evaluating and improving policies and benefits, such as maternity leave, to ensure they are truly supportive and not burdensome in terms of paperwork or processes. Lena explains: “If someone has to fill out 10 forms and get five signatures to access maternity leave, it might be time to examine that process and whether your organization is really committed to providing maternity leave or just committed to making people fill out paperwork and get signatures.”
- Take a stand against micro and macro aggressions: This includes providing education and training to employees on what they look like and how to prevent them, as well as taking a hard line against such behaviors. Lena offers the following practical suggestion: “Have built-in rules of engagement that are reinforced at the leadership level, such as ‘Allow everyone to finish their thoughts before someone else starts talking.’ In fact, in my experience, many women have resorted to using often misogynistically vilified filler words, such as 'umm', 'uhh', and 'like' as a method to audibly indicate they're not finished expressing their thoughts and don't want to be interrupted. If, within your company, everyone is allowed to finish their thoughts before someone else begins speaking, people who are less likely to be heard, will be more likely to be fully heard, feel respected, and included. Also, when having hard conversations about micro and macro aggressions, center the needs of people who are more likely to be transgressed against and ask them about their experiences with mansplaining, thought interruption, taking credit for ideas, stealing credit for ideas, being excluded from opportunities, not having internal champions, etc. Really consider how you can structurally identify, challenge, and change these processes and experiences for employees.”
- Center quality of life for employees. Briefly put, when you focus on helping employees feel safe and supported at work through the above structural changes, and demonstrate through words and action that their quality of life matters, you will have more productive employees who will stick around. This is especially true for women who now seek companies that offer more flexibility and focus on well-being in the face of being overworked and undervalued for that work.