By Emily Blobaum, Fearless editor

As a leadership consultant at Sarah Noll Wilson, Gilmara Vila Nova-Mitchell has plenty of experience working with executives and leadership teams – many of them majority-male – on taking existing policies and practices and reworking them to be more equitable for women. 

At our May 21 Fearless Friday event, Vila Nova-Mitchell answered questions about barriers that women face in business settings and how to address them. 

Here are four takeaways from the conversation: 

Modeling by leaders is imperative

Women continue to shoulder the majority of child care and domestic work and carry heavy mental loads, which refers to the invisible, intangible tasks involved in running a household, like scheduling doctor’s appointments, making grocery lists and keeping track of after-school activity schedules. 

This contributes to the stereotype that women aren’t as available or committed to their company as their male counterparts, Vila Nova-Mitchell said. 

To address this, she encouraged male executives to model being present at home. 

“If the CEO says to his team, ‘I’m leaving an hour early because my kid has a soccer game,’ that gives other fathers permission to do the same, which then levels the playing field for women, who are always seen as being absent,” she said. 

Recognize that women are modest in asking what we need 

In her remarks, Vila Nova-Mitchell gave a brief anecdote about a period in her career where she was going through a challenge in her personal life and needed flexibility. After being upfront with her leader, she was encouraged to take Fridays off for six months. 

“That was the best gift a leader could have given me at that time. I was able to be a great mother, a great worker and juggle everything I had going on at that time without compromising something.” 

The burden of asking for an accommodation does fall on the individual, but Vila Nova-Mitchell also urged leaders to be proactive in reaching out to team members about what they need for support.

Women are very modest in asking for what we need, she said. “I cannot emphasize how important modeling by leaders is. When people at the top demonstrate grace with their own challenges, it gives the team permission to do the same.” 

Vila Nova-Mitchell also implored leaders to consider tweaking performance evaluation criteria. 

“Women have a disadvantage because typically we are juggling more,” she said. “One thing companies can do to support women is to review evaluation criteria so it’s more realistic and aligns with our current reality.”

Make networking/mentorship a priority

Again addressing the notion that women juggle more, Vila Nova-Mitchell said that men naturally make and have more time for networking outside of the office. 

She encouraged women to be intentional about blocking off time in their calendars, like setting time every Friday where they go out to lunch with a mentor. 

Vila Nova-Mitchell also recognized that many mentoring opportunities are informal, so it may behoove organizations to create and implement formal structures, like women’s affinity groups. 

Eliminating gender barriers goes beyond representation of women at an organization

If organizations have a goal to eliminate the barriers that women face, they should be looking beyond gender parity, Vila Nova-Mitchell said. 

Look at how many women have been promoted, how many women have mentors and how many women are at the table when big decisions are being made, she said. 

Vila Nova-Mitchell shared the example of implementing a tally system in meetings to monitor who talks and how much air time men and women have. 

“Doing an inventory of who talks in meetings, who is making decisions and who is growing is the best way to know if you’re providing equal access and opportunity for women after you recruit them.” 


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