Addie Swartz is CEO of reacHIRE, a provider of cohort-based return-to-work programs and the Aurora digital platform for early-career women.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing has once again focused a light on the challenges we have overcome in breaking down gender barriers in America, and the work still left to be done. Ginsburg famously said that “real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” For generations, we’ve referred to a step-forward in a person’s career as climbing a corporate ladder, but ladders come with warnings right on them: “Never carry an object or load that could cause you to lose your balance.” When women in particular are forced to climb to the next level of their career, aren’t they being asked to do exactly what the warnings tell us not to do? Women are often climbing while “carrying” other responsibilities, like caring for children or loved ones, often at a disproportionate rate compared to men. As I’ve previously noted, with Covid-19, the climb to the top of the ladder is even more treacherous for women. We need to flip the corporate ladder on its side to form a bridge that more women can cross together.
As an employee, I never liked the analogy of the corporate ladder — though I fought hard to climb it early in my career — and Sheryl Sandberg’s jungle gym metaphor never worked for me either. They are both structured and fixed — and dare I say, lonely. Climbing a ladder or scaling a jungle gym are both independent endeavors, fraught with danger and surrounded by people who are all trying to do the same thing without falling off. Instead, I prefer the concept of a moveable bridge that enables me to cross with others — an adaptable yet secure way to reach different destination points along my journey. We talk a lot about why it’s bad to “burn bridges” in our careers, but never about how to actually build them.
We are in an extremely difficult and emotional time. Old complexities are even more complicated, and today’s decisions will have a huge impact on tomorrow. Corporate America needs to upend its career advancement strategy, especially for women. Here are three ways to start:
1. Community-Based Cohorts And Coaches: According to one report, three in five adults report being lonely, which manifests itself in less engaged, less productive employees who think about quitting their jobs twice as often as engaged workers. Companies can’t force friendships, but they can bring people together to discuss shared experiences and lean on one another for support and encouragement. Giving employees peer groups they can connect with, dedicated coaches for one-on-one sessions and more personal cohort support shows a corporate commitment to employees’ growth and provides that much-needed community during this extreme time of isolation. Proactively helping employees navigate the journey is the difference between hoping to see them reach their destination and helping them to get there. A reliable and trusted network of coaches, peers and role models helps women identify different bridges and pathways within their own organization so they each can chart their own course.
2. Pivot Planning: Through my company’s work building returnship and retention programs for employers, I see how vital it is for organizations to meet women where they are. In a time where rapid pivoting means survival, with women taking off-ramps and on-ramps at different times, companies need to offer women the skills to succeed in new and different roles or risk losing them. This is especially true for younger workers. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, “87% of millennials rate ‘professional or career growth and development opportunities’ as important to them in a job.” By offering structured, small-team, continuous learning and leadership-building opportunities, companies can help employees build resilience, develop new skills, expand their networks and add value to different parts of the organization.
3. Family-Friendly Flexibility: In our new work-from-home normal, employees are looking for companies with an empathetic eye and ear for family needs. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review advises working parents to “think through the most important commitments you have with your family that might impact time at work….and reflect on how your current or previous employers have fallen short.” Because every family’s needs are different and can change at any time (especially now), it is critical that companies create bridges that are open for communication at frequent and regular intervals to check in on employees’ needs and adjust accordingly based on group feedback and unique situations.
It is critical to keep women in the workforce en masse. Corporate ladders are antiquated, narrow, steep and difficult to climb. Let’s commit to turning the proverbial ladder on its side and transform it into a bridge that helps more women get to where they want to go, together.
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