If you’re female, you’ve probably heard all of the grim facts about how gender affects your career: You’re less likely to ask for a raise (and may miss out on $500,000 before you retire), the pay gap between genders has barely budged in a decade, and you’re less likely to land a leadership role at work.
Maybe you’ve read Lean In. But what next? For Boston-based designer Mia Scharphie, the answer was creating a workshop that helped turn insights from literature on women in the workplace into concrete actions that women could practice with the support of a group of peers.
“If you’re reading a great article or book, and you’re kind of inspired and thinking about it, then the next thing comes along and you’re distracted,” says Scharphie. “It helps to have a process with other people where you say, okay, information is great, but what does this mean for me? What am I going to do about it? How is it actually going to change my life?”
Scharphie, who says she became an unofficial “feminist cheerleader” for fellow female classmates at Harvard Graduate School of Design (yes, even at Harvard, women struggle with confidence during presentations or when it comes time to apply for a competitive job), first ran her Build Yourself Workshop at the university last year. Now she’s adapted it for professional architects and designers in the Boston Society of Architects–though she says the skills they practice could be useful for any profession.
Over six weeks, the group takes on a series of challenges. During a week on negotiation, for example, someone might choose a small thing to negotiate, and ask for twice as much. During a week on self-presentation, someone might record themselves talking and note some habits to change, or practice standing tall and exuding confidence every time she walks through a doorway (an exercise that Scharphie found in a dating guide for guys). In the first week, participants list 20 things they would do if they weren’t afraid; by the end, they choose an exercise they can do to help someone else or change the broader culture at work.
The key with each step is to actually do something, rather than just reading about it. “It’s usually something that requires you to get your gumption up,” Scharphie says. “Then you go out and do it, and you come back and talk about your experience with the group and get cheered on. Then we dig into the work together–how did it go, what did you learn, and what you might do next time.”
For others who want to do something similar (and who don’t necessarily want to join a Lean In circle, a related network of groups of professional women), Scharphie says a few elements can make a group successful.
“The basic ingredients are consistency–consistent meetings with people who really know you and know when to push you and when to kind of support you,” she says. “Then making sure you’re bringing in information, new frameworks that will help you with some of the challenges you’re struggling with.”
Last, she says, people in the group have to set obvious and measurable goals. “There intense emphasis on what you’re going to do,” she says. “You’ve got to be able to figure out somehow whether or not you’re measuring up to a milestone. That sense of having goal is important–and having people around you who are there to say ‘yes, we’re proud of you, we see how far you’ve come.'”