When women get a seat at the table, they have to help other women take a chair and get men to listen

“I’ve never had a female boss before.” One of my direct reports – a whip smart woman in her early 30s – made this comment recently and it took a moment before I realized she was referring to me. I so rarely think of myself as “the boss,” that it did not automatically register. When it did, I realized just how important her statement was. First, that she was well into her career and had never had a female manager. While women make up half the population, we still lag behind in leadership roles. I was fortunate to have strong women as colleagues along the way, but I did not have a “female boss” until my mid-40s. Where have all the women gone? If you are a woman, you likely know the answer to that: They have opted for a different career, or are at home caring for children or aging parents, or working for themselves to have more control over their time and energy.

Which led to my second realization: Women leaders – that growing, but still slim, percentage of women in the C-suite – are uniquely positioned to effect change. I made it to the table. I have a seat, and I take that responsibility to heart. It is important for women to see other women as leaders, to know that there is room for them at the table. It is also critical that women support other women and bring them along with advice, encouragement, mentorship, and opportunities.

“Women helping women” has been the narrative for so long that we may have missed the opportunity in front of us: women helping men. I do have a seat at the table, and most of the other people there are men. I have learned that when I open the door to conversation, my male colleagues not only listen, but are actively engaged and genuinely curious about the experience of women in the workplace. Do women struggle to speak up when they are the only one in the room? Yes, and it’s not because we lack confidence. Ask a woman for her opinion, she’ll tell you. Do women leaders walk a fine line between being “the boss” and being perceived as “bossy”? Most definitely. Have her back the next time you are in a meeting together.

It is my goal to create space for these conversations. Recently, the president of Sonepar North America, Rob Taylor, sat down with women from across the business for coffee and listened as they shared their experiences and personal stories. This type of conversation allows women to be heard and their varied life experiences understood. With understanding comes respect, and that is the workplace we should all be working towards.