How to Champion Women in the Workplace

March 26, 2021
Nicola Cronin

To conclude the month of March, in which we've celebrated International Women’s Day and also Women's History Month, we ran a special webinar focused on championing women and raising awareness of some of the challenges different women face at work. 

Here’s a quick round up of the top takeaways and lessons learned from our expert panelists:

The Speakers: 

  • Ashanti Bentil-Dhue

CEO of EventMind as well as the Co-Founder of a number of consultancies such as 100 White Allies and Diversity Ally – which support organisations to find their weak spots when it comes to diversity, and help workplace cultures become healthier and inclusive.


  • Kistin Gunnis

A seasoned Ops Manager and COO with over 25 years experience in the corporate world. She's the founder of global networking group Professional Women's Lunches, and is currently empowering women through networking and mentoring at Business in Heels.


  • Julie Dennis 

Director of Menopause at Work, Julie partners with organisations across the UK to introduce menopause as an inclusive topic, to educate leaders and ensure people working through menopause continue to thrive at work and home. 

The Top Line: 

  • Lack of visibility is a prominent issue for women and other minority groups – not seeing people who look like you in senior positions 
  • Intersectionality must be factored in when addressing these conversations 
  • Managers should have training on implicit bias and inclusive leadership
  • Personal stories are the most powerful vehicle for change
  • Choose external consultants wisely and be prepared to be truly transparent
  • These issues affect everyone and everyone should be involved in the conversation


The Challenges: 

To kick off we explored some of the standout challenges affecting women at work. Kistin raised the issue of the ‘The Broken Rung’ which refers to the lack of pipeline which gets women into entry-level management. Plenty of organisations have diversity in their junior workforce, but not enough of those people are moving upwards.

There’s naturally many issues at a societal level when it comes to gender, and every country will have their own challenges to tackle. Kistin spoke of her experience in India, where organisations not only have the challenge of becoming more diverse, but also of shifting generations' worth of opinion and bias about women. 

“Tearing down long standing beliefs is hard, you’re asking people to really look at who they are and challenge the way they think. So as an organisation yes you can put in policies and procedures, but it’s also this human piece that we have to tackle, and start having conversations on the individual level to inspire change.” 

We were in agreement that visibility is a key issue for women. Julie highlighted the lack of female role models she had when starting in her career, and the idea that the women who had it made it to the top were not then acting as a vehicle for other women to follow them. 

“The women in senior positions, I certainly didn’t want to be like them and it didn’t feel like they were there to support the younger women. That was in the 90s and is thankfully far less common now.” 

She then discussed a key element of visibility which was how to get ‘comfortably visible’. 

“The only examples we tend to have for visibility are the ways that white males behave, but why should that behaviour work for anyone else? Learning how to be visible in a way that’s comfortable for you is important. As well as recognising that just because you’re doing a good job and working hard, you’re not necessarily going to be noticed”.

The conversation moved on to intersectionality, reflecting on how ‘challenges that women face’ is a hugely broad statement which doesn’t factor in the overlapping identities which create specific circumstances for discrimination, such as race, age, sexuality, gender identity, ability and so on.

As Julie put it: “We tend to talk a lot about the challenges women face in the workplace, but it might be better to talk about people.” 

Taking menopause as an example, this is a topic which is commonly discussed as only affecting or being relevant to women, and yet trans men may also experience menopause. It’s therefore crucial that we have intersectionality at the forefront of our minds when raising awareness in our organisations. 

Ashanti works with businesses to help them become more aware of this, and to identify diversity weak points, and believes intersectionality is going to become a bigger topic within organisations.

There are challenges that disproportionately affect women of colour and specifically black women in the workplace in the UK. 

“At the moment across any sector, 0% of senior positions are held by black women. And so when we discuss women’s progression in a professional capacity, unfortunately we don’t see women of colour benefit from these initiatives and programmes that exist in businesses.” 

This raised an important point on the debate of how much responsibility lies with the individual or the system to make change. For women of colour who are not benefiting from existing initiatives, it doesn’t matter how hard they try to increase their visibility if the environment they work in is “not designed for them to flourish” as Ashanti put it.

Another factor which affects the challenges women face is of course age. Research has been released on this topic, showing that as soon as women show signs of ageing they are deemed ‘less competent’, which is infuriatingly the opposite of how older men are received. Julie reflected on this through her work with women going through menopause:

“When it comes to menopause, you might hit a certain point and find that suddenly the confidence you had has disappeared, you might be second guessing yourself, or worrying how people perceive you as you get older. There’s blocks all the way up the chain, so it’s not only hard when you’re starting out as Kistin said, but there’s actually obstacles all the way.” 

When discussing how to raise awareness of these intersectional issues at work, Ashanti raised it’s often individuals actually coming forward, who feel personally compelled to act because of an experience they’ve had at work. Meaning that a number of brave individuals are driving change and flagging issues that then lead businesses to seek expertise to help them address the issue. Julie agreed having seen a similar thing in her career:

“It’s interesting how often it is a personal trigger for someone, it’s an employee within the organisation who has to champion the topic. As opposed to the businesses recognising early on that it’s the right thing to do, and trying to create a positive environment where it’s okay to talk about sensitive topics.”

Before we moved on to discuss some potential solutions, Julie also flagged the severe lack of data when it comes to the topics we were discussing. With the majority of workplace research being conducted on middle-class cis gender heterosexual women, a lot of the data is fairly useless in the areas where we’re trying to drive change. 


What organisations can do to champion women:

Covid-19 has led us to question what success looks like for individuals and businesses, and shaken up the old fashioned way that many of us were accustomed to working. Kistin believes this has provided an opportunity for businesses to look at their company structures and shake off some of the gender norms and stereotypes that have been detrimental to women’s success. For example, tasks like office housekeeping and photocopying which have traditionally fallen to women do not exist anymore.

Ashanti firstly raised the point that all solutions require work, which is ironically something that businesses aren’t always prepared for. D&I is not a ticked box exercise or something that can be solved with an hour long ‘lunch and learn’ as Julie mentioned, it’s a far longer and multi-faceted process: 

“One thing that is so key in terms of board members and senior management is self-awareness. A lot of these issues and topics could be eased if individuals had more self-awareness, in terms of their own ideas and beliefs, and also their managerial styles”.

Ashanti flagged how the majority of manager training and leadership coaching do not delve into implicit bias and what being an inclusive leader really looks like. This means we end up with leaders across all industries who have unaddressed traumas and unchallenged bias, which shows up in the way they manage people. 

Systemic inequality in the workplace affects everyone, including white males:

“The workplace is broken. The generation for which it was originally designed is gone. Millennial and Gen Z white men will experience their own challenges in the workplace which businesses also aren’t prepared for.” 

A first step solution is therefore to ensure all managers and first-time managers are getting proper training on self-awareness, bias, and systemic inequality. This requires people being humble, emotionally mature, and willing to go through that potentially unsavoury experience. 

We discussed how crazy it is that people are promoted based on technical skill, leading them to then manage people, which requires an entirely different skill set and something organisations rarely sufficiently train their employees for. Kistin touched on this: 

“We’ve lost the value for people management. We give it lip service. We promote people who are technically astute, but then place them in a role where they’re having to be a manager to people...They may not have high EQ, they may not actually like working with other people.”

Organisations need to rethink the long standing mindset that perpetuates this. Certain behaviours have always been rewarded in business but they’re often not the behaviours that are suited to people management, as it requires a whole different set of skills. 

Julie suggested these conversations should be had as early as the final stage interview and definitely within induction processes. They need to be widespread across the organisation and not just within the groups that are already affected. They need to be mandatory.

“The people who aren’t interested in these topics are also most likely to be the ones causing problems. So there needs to be an element of bravery from organisations in strongly inviting senior stakeholders to attend.” 

A good way to do this is to ensure your comms team is involved in any diversity & inclusion initiatives happening within your organisation. 

What individuals can do to champion women: 

We then moved on to discuss this from an individual level. It's all well and good thinking about what the 'business' can do, but we're all people and people make up a business. Therefore we can all make a difference as individuals to champion women and choose to challenge normalised inequality at work.

Julie highlighted here the importance of personal stories having the power to spark change. 

“The easiest way we learn is through personal experience. If you have a story to share and you’re comfortable doing so, then share that story”.

This could be in a one-on-one conversation with someone, an anonymous blog, a video message, or a talk to a small group – whatever you’re most comfortable with.

Stories create a ripple effect within organisations more than any policy or corporate initiative ever could. 

For individuals in a Diversity and Inclusion or HR function who have the responsibility of tackling some of these issues in business, Ashanti’s advice was to be genuine and transparent when you source consultants and experts in to help, and make sure you’re truly listening to the stories of the groups you are trying to support internally.

“If you can be honest about what’s truly happening at your organisation, that’s how you can be a good ally”. 

Kistin also touched on the importance of a strategic networking plan, and the power of having people in your corner who advocate for you. Not only on an individual level can we seek these networks and mentors out for our career development, but we can also give up our time to support and help others.

Another thing she highlighted was amplifcation. An all too familiar scene for women is having your point ignored or brushed over in a meeting, for a male colleague to say the same thing and get a pat on the back or spark lots of discussion. 

In these situations as managers and colleagues, we all have the power to acknowledge and amplify women’s ideas, to credit them and back them up. These are small behaviour changes which might not seem like they could make a huge impact, but if everyone were to start doing them it could truly change many women’s experience at work. 

Some closing remarks included the reminder that these are everybody’s issues. They are not reserved for women, or women of colour specifically, or menopausal women specifically. They impact everyone and everyone has the potential and the responsibility to make a difference. 

To be an inclusive workplace, you must ensure everybody’s voices are heard and that everyone is included in the conversation (whether they would volunteer to be or not). 

_______

Huge thank you to Ashanti, Kistin and Julie for sharing their time and expertise with us. 

We hope it inspires a number of conversations and actions within organisations about Choosing to Challenge and better championing all women. 

To catch up on the webinar, view it on demand here.

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