#WinningWhileFemale: How to run a company that works for women

We are starting a new content series called #WinningWhileFemale to share a fresh perspective for female founders and business owners on conquering bias and seeing their companies succeed. We thought it would be helpful to share some techniques for a better way to operate that we’ve thought deeply about with the broader female boss lady community.

Our first topic: It is proven that women work in a different style than men do. Yet many female founders blindly follow processes that men designed (often, a long time ago)? What if we design a workplace that works better for all of us, men included?

Here are 13 tips and ideas that come from what we’ve built at AnnieCannons to run a  better, more inclusive operation that allows team members from all backgrounds and circumstances contribute successfully to our success. 

Assume Family Schedules 

Don’t schedule meetings during school pick up or drop off.  These are crucial times for those trying to work and raise a family. Anytime before 9 am or between 2:45 – 3:45 will usually  prevent a parent from bringing their child home from school, and force them to do extra work to make accommodations. 

You can also  avoid scheduling important meetings after 5pm so that parents can spend some evening time with their kids before bedtime. If there is something urgent, see if they might be able to sync late in the evening after they put their kids down. Many moms already work after the kids are in bed, so be sure you acknowledge the value of what they contribute as much as if it were at 5:30 PM.

If you have an offsite or celebrations, put these during normal work hours. For those who have families or other obligations, it’s hard to attend after hours or weekend work functions. Nights and weekends can then be available for them to spend with families. 

Actively Solicit Feedback in Every Meeting

Remember that most women and minorities have spent a lifetime being conditioned to think, unfairly, that their opinions don’t matter. Let’s break that cycle. Instead of expecting your team to pipe up with their opinions by interrupting or speaking over others, assume that people are not yet sharing their good ideas.  Often it’s simply a matter of not knowing the right time to share. You can fix this by doing two things: (1) identify a particular pause or moment(s) in your discussion as the time when you want your team to share feedback and questions and (2) specifically call on those at the meeting who are not speaking to ask if they have anything to add.

By actively asking and giving feedback, both you and your employees can grow. You will infuse more value from diverse opinions and thoughts into your outcomes.  Plus, your team will appreciate that you create a space for them to be heard. 

Create Purposeful Space 

Let your team know that they matter as people, early and often. 

For example, we create a bi-monthly meeting for the whole team to share how they are feeling in an open, non-judgemental setting. We specifically ask for both the good and the bad. This gives employees time to air their issues so they don’t build over time. 

Similarly,  every other week we create a purposeful space reserved for group strategic planning. This ensures that everyone’s ideas are being considered in our overall strategy, creating a well-rounded approach.

Start Big Block of Cheese Day

On the show The West Wing, President Bartlet would have something called the Big Block of Cheese Day. Though fictional, Big Block of Cheese Day is a day reserved for the general public to ask you anything. During this time, anyone can come in with their crazy ideas without judgment. You can do this by creating a six-hour block that you’re available for questions from your staff, customers or fans. Use a video streaming service to make it accessible for anyone. We’re doing this in the next month!  Want to come to ours? Email info@anniecannons.com. 

Allow People to Define Themselves

When a new student or employee starts, we respect their identity as they see it and we require everyone on the team to respect it, too.. Whether it’s gender identity, appearance, or values, everyone at AnnieCannons get the space to be who they are, according to them. It turns out to be easy to use the words that make someone feel welcome, included, and respected with a very small amount of effort.

Blindly Evaluate

Remember that we all have biases, even when we don’t intend to.  And we don’t always notice when those biases color our feedback. We can still correct for them, though!

When reviewing employees’ programming work, we use a blind evaluation system wherever possible, including on top of a review by a supervisor who knows the worker. This allows for feedback that is free of bias. This way the members of your team who come from different backgrounds than the person reviewing their work can add value in unexpected ways. A blind reviewer can’t set expectations to measure against – they just have to look at the quality of work on its face – it’s why everyone from undergraduate admissions offices to law school professors have found that outcomes for women and minorities improve with blind grading.    

Provide Childcare 

The patriarchy has created a system that assumes men will be the breadwinner, and that the cost of childcare is baked into what they are paid. Yet many working moms don’t have the resources to pay for separate childcare, and bright women often don’t return to the workforce as soon as they’d like because, ironically, they can’t afford a nanny. 

Providing childcare on site is a win-win for the employer and the employee. Accessible childcare means the employee is able to execute her job and knowing her child is safe nearby. It means no lost time for her coordinating a nanny, and no need to decide between her family priorities and her work priorities. This also makes the employee more loyal to the employer — they see that the employer cares about their family, and because their kids have a relationship with the childcare, too. You could be the only place a talented person can work and still eat lunch with their kids everyday.

Oftentimes employees will take a lower base pay because of childcare provided (note to nonprofits and startups!), so this can help with recruiting, too. We provide a babysitter for our students at our offices, so they can learn and code without the stress of trying to find and pay for childcare.

Get Dogs in The Workplace

There is research that pets in the workplace improve office morale, increase productivity, and decrease stress. Of course, this doesn’t apply if you have team members who are allergic. It is totally reasonable to require that pets come to the office only if they can behave. . But love our pets in the office! 

Extend Maternity & Paternity Leave

You can make a decision to invest early in sustaining policies that further equality, and maternity and paternity leave is one of these. Historically, maternity leave was something women couldn’t avoid taking, and men rarely took a lesser paternity leave so they seemed more “committed” to work – but it’s obvious that means that mothers who take leave are deemed less committed by comparison, even though they are not less committed than their male counterparts. 

There are two things you can do: make parental leave mandatory for everyone, and make it last longer.

If everyone takes leave, no one is seen as less committed for doing it. This shifts the perception that mothers are the primary caretaker and allows for a well-rounded approach. Unfortunately, in the nonprofit world, you’ll have to double fundraise to pay people to be on maternity leave. This is why creating a childcare system is so beneficial for startups and nonprofits that can’t afford employees to be gone for so long. 

Do your best to offer at least 3 months of leave (this is when babies are first even able to see colors and shapes well, as opposed to just recognizing the comfort of their mother). 

Some employers lean on short term disability insurance to give the employee a percentage of salary that extend paid leave.

If you are considering creating a better leave policy, Optimizely created a great parental leave primer and calculator here.

Improve Your Performance Reviews

Performance reviews always end up more subjective than you’d expect. Look at your performance review system to look for cues of subjectivity, and take out opinion-based feedback wherever possible. Think about what matters to your business and create questions that stem from that, not anything like “likeability”. 

Remember that ongoing feedback doesn’t have to be negative. We use an app called Disco to celebrate people who are bringing our values to life in a way that improves our culture.

Create an Owner for Admin Work

In all but the earliest startups, where founders do admin work and all other work, admin work should not be spread amongst all employees (like cleaning and taking out trash).  If it is everyone’s work, it is no one’s work, and often women and minorities are asked to take on more than their fair share. 

Admin work should have an owner, and should be acknowledged as something that adds value to the company just like any other work. This might be one admin role or or a specific task assigned to an employee. 

Emphasize a Winning Team 

If you’re going to have people compete, don’t make it at the individual level. Instead, make it about the team that performed the best and how they did so. You’ll get so many more learnings and good behaviors if you encourage collaboration instead of 1:1 competition. Also, consider aggregating the best from all the solutions presented for a particular problem into a single winning solution. This allows everyone to be a part of the final product and learn from it, but more importantly it gives you the absolute best your whole team has to offer.

We want to hear from more female founders and business owners. What creative ways do you build a better, safer workplace for women and men alike?

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