In the pursuit to achieve professional success, it’s incredibly helpful to have a vision of how that success may look—and, more crucially, how success for you may look. But what if at your place of work, you don’t see any women in leadership roles? In this edition of Good@Work, career expert Amy Odell—whom you may know as the former editor of and founding blogger of New York magazine’s The Cut—explains how you can take matters into your own hands this Women’s History Month, and why it’s so important for all women that you do.
It’s hard for me to envision climbing the career ladder at the company where I work because I don’t see any women in leadership roles. As an ambitious woman at my company who’s ready to hustle and achieve, how can I best set myself up for success—or is it hopeless to even try?
Trying to get promoted is not hopeless. Yes, women—and especially women of color—lag far behind men in leadership roles and compensation, earning 79 cents to every dollar a man earns under age 40, according to recent research. But that’s no reason to stop trying. Change has to happen in both your organization and American society more broadly so that women are given the same opportunities to succeed and amass wealth as men are. And if women collectively give up on the pursuit of promotions and raises, those statistics will never change.
So what can you do, personally, about the lack of women in leadership roles?
One thing author Ada Calhoun writes about in her excellent book Why We Can’t Sleep—which spotlights Gen X women suffering through a silent midlife-crisis pandemic and outlines why it’s happening—is that the current model of work simply doesn’t work for most women, who are saddled with the intense responsibility of taking care of other people. Often, women are taking care of both small children and aging parents in addition to doing paid work and housework—and much more of that than men, to be sure. This unpaid labor not only exhausts women, but it adds up to a staggering $1.5 trillion in lost wages in the United States alone.
The sad reality in 2020 is that many workplaces do a terrible job of accommodating this incredibly common aspect of modern life. So from the top level, companies need to think about the kinds of changes they can make to allow quality employees to continue to advance professionally while still being human beings with personal lives when they’re not in the office. Whether this looks like increased remote-work opportunities, flexibility and understanding for unplanned schedule disruptions (like sick children), or a reimagined system that rewards metrics rather than hours in the office per week, it’s clear that options abound for opportunities to improve.
But I’m guessing that if your company doesn’t have any women in leadership roles, it’s also not good at any of the above things. And if it’s not good at any of the above things, it may also not be good at things like paying women dollar-for-dollar what men earn. And it may not provide adequate paid family leave. This means your managers probably need a lot of education around these issues—and that’s where women like you come in.
Create recommendations for the company around a policy objective. To do this, talk with your colleagues about what they want to see change, so you establish grassroots support for your cause. Then, tackle one thing at a time, because it’s more manageable for you and easier for your managers to say yes to a single request than 10.
I’ve seen this sort of campaigning work regarding family-leave policies: Women put together a proposal for their organization explaining why having a better leave policy would be financially beneficial for the company, and then the company signed off on it. So, do research and pull statistics to provide evidence that companies with diverse leadership ranks perform better than homogenous ones. (In fact, since people often respond well to increased profit projections, use numbers where you can.) Also, informally poll employees at the company to show management that this is a meaningful issue for many in addition to yourself. If you’re successful with your first campaign, you could then try advocating for something else on your workplace wish list.
I wish all of this weren’t necessary; I wish men at the top had the best interests of women—and all people, for that matter—at heart and thought about our struggles often. But I’m also a big believer in advocating for oneself in general. Most people spend their time thinking about themselves, and if you want to get anywhere in any industry, you usually have to wave your arms and jump up and down and demand recognition and make sure people know how great you are and how badly you want something, be it a raise or a promotion or a bigger team.
If your campaign isn’t successful, or you feel like you can’t even advocate for yourself at your company in the first place because the work environment is that hostile? Well, it might be time to consider looking for a new job. In this case, make sure there are women in leadership roles when you interview. Ask about work-from-home policies and how the company supports parents. And remember: This isn’t just about moms, but parents broadly, because men, too, should shoulder some of the responsibility of unpaid labor at home.
And make sure your advocacy continues outside of the office, too. Vote for politicians who want to pass legislation for affordable childcare, equal pay, and paid family leave. We can and should all do our part to talk about these issues when there’s not an imminent election, but nothing is more powerful than enacting new policies. And if we don’t vote for the right people, that will never happen.
Amy Odell is a journalist and author living in New York. She is the former editor of, which became one of the most popular and award-winning sites for millennial women during her tenure. She is passionate about mentoring people starting off in their careers. She is from Austin, Texas.
Have a career question for Amy? Email us at goodwork@.
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