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What women need to know about success at work

For women to achieve success at work, they must change their own mindset, but leaders also much take action on inclusion efforts, writes Alaina Love.

6 min read


success at work

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With Women’s History Month coming to a close, I decided to chat with two colleagues who have decades of experience studying the inclusion of women in the workplace. Our discussions were winding excursions into past and present barriers to women’s success at work, especially their ascension to leadership roles. With the intense focus on inclusion that we have observed in many companies, we pondered two important questions:

  • What three actions can women take to positively influence their careers and daily work experience? 
  • What one barrier to inclusion must leaders address to make progress with creating a thriving work culture? 

After examining these complex issues, we agreed on key strategies that have made a difference for women who have achieved success in the workplace. We also identified a significant obstacle that leaders need to address if their goal is to achieve true inclusion. 

Strategies adopted by successful women

1. Increase self-awareness

“It is women who have changed a lot,” declared my friend, Sally Helgesen. She is author of the new book, Rising Together, which explores the factors required to create a more inclusive workplace. Much of the catalyst for shaping such a workplace has its genesis in women re-examining their own capacity for contribution. With each new insight about their capabilities, women have gained more confidence and the ability to articulate their value to the organization.

This shift in confidence and self-awareness has changed the work environment for everyone. “Rather than being competitive with colleagues, women have become more collaborative than they were three decades ago,” Helgesen reflects. While some women are invested in their own career growth and accomplishment, and others are more committed to supporting women colleagues, as a whole, women tend to be more inclusive. They understand what it’s like to be outsiders in the leadership mainstream.  

“They are also aware that they need to enlist men as allies, and men, in turn, are becoming more supportive of women,” says Helgesen.

2. Leverage networks

Most people seeking to further their careers have been encouraged to seek out mentors and sponsors at work. But women who build networks beyond senior leader support expand their reach and derive greater benefits. Leveraging relationships with colleagues and personal contacts builds the power of women’s networks and exposes them to more opportunities within and outside of their current organization. It’s true that not everyone has easy access to a mentor or a sponsor.  What do you do then? “Start where you are and build with what you have,” Helgesen advises. Everyone in your network has the potential to support your career.

3. Develop a resilient mindset

Dr. Carrie Spell-Hansson, CEO of the Folke Institute for Transformative Learning, has conducted extensive research on women and respect in the workplace. Her analysis revealed that women, more often than men, experience disrespect at work, a factor that undermines inclusion. When studying successful women leaders who faced workplace disrespect, she identified six resilient behaviors that allowed the women to maintain and retain their level of career success. They are of value to all women aspiring to leadership roles:

Mindsets and Strategies My Resilient Behaviors in Action
Exhibit presence, and nurture it in others
  • Self-Awareness: I am mindful of the importance of communicating and interacting respectfully with others.
  • Other-Awareness: I pay attention to the cues from others to let me know if they feel respected or disrespected.
  • Allyship: I am willing to take a stand on behalf of others when I see that they are being disrespected regardless of whether or not they are present.
Command respect
  • I no longer see myself as powerless.
  • I am giving myself permission to step into my power.
Follow the “secret sauce” recipe I internalize and exhibit the resilient characteristics I identify with:

  • Perseverance and faith
  • Act like a Level 1 leader
  • Demonstrate courage
  • Find common ground
  • Don’t take a lot of crap
Practice gratitude
  • I am grateful to all the positive role models and influences in my life.
  • I tap into my deepest emotional roots.
Put self before service
  • I know I always have choices, even if they are difficult ones.
Respect and protect my wellbeing
  • I pay attention to my mind, body and emotional cues and take action when I feel out of balance.
  • I have practices that help me maintain my purpose and connection to that which is greater than myself.

Adapted from: Key Factors That Contribute to the Development of Resilience in Successful Women Leaders Who Experience Disrespect and the Importance of Respect in the Post-Pandemic Workplace. By Carrie Spell-Hansson.  Merits 2023, 3, 133–150

One Action to Create an Inclusive Workplace

While my colleagues and I could point to a variety of obstacles we’ve witnessed in organizations espousing a culture of inclusion, we challenged ourselves to identify just one significant step leaders could take to create a thriving culture. After wrestling with several ideas, we observed that many companies place more emphasis on discussing inclusion than they do on practicing it. 

Indeed, inclusion is an evolutionary journey, but leaders must move beyond rhetoric to shift the work experience for all employees, not only women. Advancement is not adopting a hyper focus on nomenclature where the organization is immersed in discussions about what to name a committee or program, or obsessing over a tag line for an inclusion initiative. This a false impression of action, that may feel good momentarily, but is not creating lasting cultural change.

Conversations that lead to consensus and insight are important, but a leader’s job is to create a path forward. To achieve real change, spend more time defining what leaders are expected to do and the behaviors they are expected to model. Inclusion is built because leadership is clear on how to practice it.


Alaina Love is CEO of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results. She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert with Fortune 500 clients. Follow Love on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or read her blog.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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