Keeping women on the leadership track

By Lisa Haugh, VP of People and General Counsel

I’m raising two boys, so I actually think quite a lot about gender equality and how I can make sure my kids grow up with an awareness of and sensitivity to the challenges women face personally and professionally. I try to show them by example that a woman can be an involved parent and pursue ambitious career goals and be effective in an executive leadership position. My 14-year-old was reading something recently that cited the low percentage of women in corporate leadership roles and he asked me why that’s the case. As we know, it was an insightful question and a difficult one to answer.

My son then shared his own observation: the girls who were outspoken in grade school tended to clam up once they got to middle school. Entering the teen years and entering the workforce are both events when we become acutely aware of differences between the sexes – some real, some only perceived. Udemy is honestly the first company where I didn’t observe any tension around gender stereotyping and was one of the few that included a woman as leader of the engineering organization.

However, just because I’ve found a hospitable working environment doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about challenges women still face in most workplaces. Indeed, until every company establishes an environment where inclusion is the norm and everyone feels equally empowered to be leaders, all women will be impacted.

I have a few ideas for how we can support young women as they grow in their careers to ensure they continue to aim high:

• Equality in family leave: Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that he’d be taking full parental leave was met with both celebration and cynicism. Despite any progress, most people and companies still default to the assumption that childcare is primarily a woman’s responsibility. While my husband gets asked why he needs to stay home with a sick kid, the reverse has never been asked of me. We need to rid ourselves of this outdated notion that women should always be the ones to put work on pause for family needs, be it child or elder care. Young women need to see it’s okay to set their own priorities and manage their families how they choose and not be judged for it.

Peer support & role models: If you’re a woman in a leadership position, be out and proud. Use your bully pulpit to advocate for change and be available to younger women who might see themselves following in your footsteps. Reach out if they don’t approach you first. Be honest but encouraging and stay connected as they navigate workplace barriers. Male leaders need to step up too and think about their own behaviors and explore potential unconscious biases. Give equal time and support to your direct reports of both sexes, and if you see a young woman with leadership potential, go out of your way to smooth her path and let her know you have her back.

• Manager training: The Bain & Company report explains how frontline managers can affect whether their female direct reports aspire to leadership or drop out. Companies need to do a better job equipping managers with the mindset and skills to nurture ambitious young women. At Udemy, one thing we’ve done is move from once-a-year performance reviews to regular, ongoing conversations between employees and managers. Not only does this keep managers more in tune with how people are feeling about their professional growth and career prospects, but it helps build relationships where both parties can gradually become more comfortable speaking openly.

• Choose your partner carefully: My last bit of advice might stir up controversy, but I think it’s an important area where young women need to look out for themselves. To them I say, have the hard conversations early and often with your life partner about what each of you envisions for your future together — in your careers, your home life, and your family planning. Women need strong, secure partners who are more than willing to share the load of non-work responsibilities. Men face pushback at work when they prioritize family too, so be sure you’re both okay with compromise and sacrifice as you pursue your dreams together.

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