10 tips for male bosses who want to help women get ahead

Written by
Wanda Wallace

26 Sep 2016

26 Sep 2016 • by Wanda Wallace

President Obama recently wrote an essay on feminism in which he called on men to help to create equal relationships, saying equality benefits us all. Nowhere is that more clear than in the mid-ranks of corporate life, where far too many valuable women leave the workforce at their peak performance. This happens due to many factors including lack of support from managers and a perception at least of inequality. 

Often what a male manager needs to do for a female direct report is not substantially different than what he would do for male employees; the distinction is mainly in style. There are very, practical tangible steps male managers could take. Below are my top ten recommendations.

1. Give candid, actionable feedback

I’ve written a lot about feedback and how to give candid feedback in recent columns. I cannot over emphasise the importance of any employee understanding where he or she needs to improve in order to do so.

But often male bosses are nervous about giving honest feedback to female employees for many reasons – fear of her reaction, fear of claims of discrimination, etc. Provide candid feedback – make sure she is aware of the developmental needs, understands the implications and has a clue what to do differently.

Be direct, she probably prefers that style. Be concrete – she most likely will not know what to do unless you are explicit.  However, don’t say, “Do like I do” as she cannot do what you do as a male.

2. Help her develop her brand, network and supporters

Introduce her to people in a way that she can follow-up and build relationships. Promote her enough so that she can follow-up and build her own reputation. Coach her on how to develop strong relationships with key stakeholders. Help her identify the key influencers and connectors in the organisation. Don’t assume her informal network is adequate to help her do this on her own. Help her find advocates and sponsors as well as mentors. Promote her in ways that others will want to get to know her and to sponsor her for new roles. 


3. Include her in conversations and interactions with the team

Understand the risks and challenges of isolation and vulnerability. It’s tough being the only woman on the team or at her level. Think about times you have been the only one and have empathy for the stress this can induce.

Watch to see that she is not getting isolated from you or from the team. Monitor informal interactions with you and with the team. Make sure these are not only in situations or at times that put her at a disadvantage. Find new forms to accommodate her style. Ensure that she has as much informal time with you as other team members do. Insure she has informal time with the team. If you notice in a team meeting that she has not spoken, solicit her opinion. If you notice others have talked over her, make a space for her voice to be heard.  


4. Help her learn how men think and work and learn how women think and work

Focus on the similarities not the differences. Help her understand the common experiences and perspectives without implying that men and women are the same or that their experiences at work are the same. Seek to understand how she experiences work.  


5. Don't micro manage

Most women hate micro-management. Find a balance between letting her do it her way and your need to know what is being done. Explain what information you need and why. Listen when she wants to give a longer, more detailed explanation than you prefer. Coach her on how to communicate best with you. 

6. Ensure she gets mainstream business experience and exposure

If she doesn’t understand the main cash business of the organisation, hasn’t worked in heart of the business or hasn’t dealt with the biggest customers, then she will have limited credibility in upper ranks of the business. This limit will eventually curtail her career. Monitor the tendency to put women in support roles only.  

7. Encourage her to move around

Help her to move around the organization so that she builds a broader network, knows more about a variety of functions and businesses and has breadth of experience. These moves shouldn’t be too early or too frequent either. She needs to establish her expertise and reputation, then move before it’s too late to move.

8. Show her how to get others on board

Help her learn to navigate the organisation – help her develop diplomacy skills. She will need them particularly as she rises. If she is in an execution role that requires the cooperation of others who do not report to her, insure that she has many tactics for gaining cooperation. Do not just insist that she get it done.  

Give advice about how to manage challenging situations. Insure that she is “groomed” to interact with senior leaders and even board members – that she can ask great questions of senior leaders, that she leaves the right impression, that she knows how to connect with senior leaders.  


9. Watch your words and the words of others

Understand that some phrases are particularly annoying to women, such as being told she is too aggressive, is too emotional, needs executive presence or doesn’t have enough visibility. Most women feel these words carry gender stereotypes.

If she doesn’t fit the gender “norm” she feels she gets overly criticized. Likewise, monitor comments from others that are interpreted negatively. For example, jokes about going to another “girlie” event, or “leaving early again", even if intended as a joke, are not well received.  


10. Gain and keep her trust

Be honest and straight forward all the time. See her as a whole person, understanding her motivations and challenges. Listen, do not tell her what to do unless she asks. Make sure she knows what you have done to protect her best interests. Understand that her trust is easily undermined, especially during times of change, around promotions and when information is not freely shared. When you make a tough decision, tell her immediately and explain as much as you can.  

I’m sure you have noticed before that these are the hallmark of being a great boss whether it’s for a male or female. For women, however, doing these things can really make the difference between helping her succeed or seeing a talented professional leave your company to go elsewhere.