How to Leverage Empathy to Create an Inclusive Environment for Women

by / ⠀Entrepreneurship Startup Advice / November 22, 2021

So you’ve achieved gender diversity in your workplace. Great! Now what? Diversity matters, of course — but not just for its own sake. Inclusion is the key to retaining both new and longer-term women employees.

And it’s critical to your organization’s success. If diverse employees don’t feel valued and acknowledged, their engagement could suffer. You might find yourself starting the candidate search all over again.

As a business leader, how can you build and retain meaningfully diverse teams on which women feel empowered to succeed? By leveraging empathy and emotional intelligence in a way that creates inclusion for women.

In your leadership role, you can also model empathy for others.

Building a culture of emotionally intelligent colleagues for whom the inclusion of women — and other diverse colleagues — can become second nature. And on a personal level, you might discover a degree of authenticity that empowers you as well. It might inspire you to stand up for your women colleagues. You may find yourself pushing your peers and superiors to provide equity for women organization-wide.

Get Started with Diversity

Of course, like many inclusive leaders of today, you might understand that empathy is important yet sometimes feel at a loss as to how to cultivate it.

Fortunately, you can teach empathy — and it’s contagious! This means not only that you can learn to be empathetic to build diversity but also that you have the power to build a workplace culture of empathy in which women are truly included and feel recognized and valued for the unique contributions they make. Joshua Jones, CFP® and CEO of Everspire and an advocate for women, offers further perspective on the opportunity:

“It’s hard to imagine a reasonable leader who does not see how well-aligned inclusivity is with both economics and ethics. The current corporate structure was mostly crafted by men, for men. Regretfully, it was intentionally built with little consideration for how to be inclusive of women, but that now needs to change. There are many disadvantages and challenges women face that even the most well-intentioned men don’t see owing to the male privilege.”

Inclusive Companies Are More Successful

A company that recognizes and accommodates talented women — who are often primarily responsible for the upbringing of the next generation — will create a progressive organization with newfound potential. We must proactively set out to offer a nurturing and equitable culture where young career-oriented women who choose to become mothers can thrive.

“Not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s also good for business. For instance, there are powerhouse women in our own organization leading, guiding, and inspiring the company towards remarkable growth, without whom we would restrict our potential and development,” says Jones.

In collaborating with Everspire over the past two years, we discovered that their culture aligns seamlessly with Girl Power Talk’s foundation of diversity and inclusion. We subsequently featured Taynia Vakapuna, a paraplanner at Everspire, writing about the necessity to push boundaries.

Empathy, Emotional Intelligence, and Mindfulness

We hear the terms “empathy” and “emotional intelligence” often these days. Simply put, having empathy means being able to understand and experience another person’s feelings — not merely recognize them.

Having emotional intelligence refers to mindfully managing both your emotions and the emotions of others.

Doing so is critical to creating an inclusive environment of diversity that allows women to thrive — and your entire team to excel. Mindfulness comes into play as you train yourself to notice your thoughts and emotions and then make conscious choices about whether, when, and how to express them.

Maybe an Example of Inclusion Might Help

What do these inclusive skills look like in practice for leaders interacting with female employees? Consider this one-on-one scenario.

Mia enters Joe’s office to inform him that she has failed a professional certification exam. They both expected she would pass. For Mia, the credential was important to her career advancement and financial success. Joe was counting on Mia’s certification to qualify his team for an upcoming proposal. Here are two tactics Joe used to ensure that Mia felt included and valued following this setback:

  • Empathy: Joe listens to Mia, allowing her to take the lead in sharing the news and her feelings about it before responding. When he speaks, he mirrors Mia’s emotions. “I understand how you feel.” “I know you are disappointed.” At that moment, he avoids stereotypically male responses such as problem-solving (“You can take the exam again”) and faultfinding (“Did you use that exam prep service I recommended?”). He simply takes in her words and expressions, pauses, and mirrors them back to her. And he truly means everything he expresses.
  • Emotional Intelligence: Joe listens to Mia, refraining from speaking and giving her ample time to share. As she speaks, he empathizes. He also takes notice of — but does not express — his own feelings of anxiety and disappointment. The leader mindfully balances his feelings with hers, consciously choosing what he feels is the most inclusive, supportive response. He opts for sympathy (“I’m sorry it didn’t go as well as you’d hoped”) and empathy (“I understand how you feel”). For the good of the team, and for Mia’s personal and professional well-being, Joe evaluates both their emotions and refrains from expressing his personal reaction to the news.

Refraining from Problem-Solving

And here is what not to do: Research shows that, unlike women, men tend toward problem-solving and faultfinding, but these responses are likely to leave Mia feeling pressured or even judged. Such feelings can destroy the sense of inclusion you want to create.

When you’re faced with a situation like this one with Joe and Mia, simply listen as your female colleague speaks. Pause, and then mirror her thoughts and emotions back to her.

If you become aware of your own reactions as you listen, simply note them, keep listening, pause, mirror your colleague, and then weigh the value of expressing your perceptions right then versus continuing to focus on her feelings.

Modeling Empathy for the Good of the Group

In groups — meetings in person or via audio or video conference, on team projects, and in all-hands gatherings — take extra care to involve your female colleagues. They might be more hesitant to draw attention to themselves based on past experiences of exclusion.

Again, bring empathy and emotional intelligence to your interactions.

Tune into what these women feel. (Intimidated? Inspired? Defensive?) Imagine what they want at the moment. (Acceptance? Encouragement? Acknowledgment?) And find a way to meet them where they are.

As an inclusive leader committed to bringing empathy to your team or organization, recognize that you are modeling behavior. When employees see you employing empathy as a way of including women, they will get the message. Women employees have distinct and valuable contributions to make, and they are an integral part of the team, just like everyone else.

Inclusion Is a Partnership, Not a Gift

In leveraging empathy, your goal is to create a workplace in which women are valued and supported. Encourage everyone to bring both their career expertise and their soft skills to their assignments.

Take care not to give the impression that you are bestowing inclusion on your women employees. You are not doing them a favor.

If anything, your female coworkers are providing you with an opportunity to grow and develop as a leader and as a person. Together, as colleagues in an inclusive culture, you can make the most of diversity. Everyone can begin drawing on one another in a way that enhances collaboration, boosts productivity, and improves recruitment and retention.

Our Commitment to a Better Future for Women at Work

My employer advocates for women at work. Our vision for the working world is one in which women are free to achieve. That they have all the resources and support that have long been afforded to men.

We acknowledge men who share our vision, and we invite all men to learn from our perspective. In our view, gender equality is a human right. Investing in women’s development is a hallmark of our mission. It’s a crucial element that’s helping men understand how they can contribute to fulfilling that goal.

About The Author

Sudhansu Batra is an advocate and mentor for women in technology, digital marketing and SEO expert, and a passionate social entrepreneur. He serves as the chief operating officer at Girl Power Talk and vice president at its sister company, Blue Ocean Global Technology based in New York.

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