What Women Need to Know About Leadership and Advancing in the Workplace Post-Pandemic

While the shift to remote work during the pandemic delivered unexpected benefits for many, there has undoubtedly been a disproportionate impact on women, especially when attempting to balance career advancement with the responsibilities of home life, child care and education, and more. With companies introducing hybrid work models and even permanent remote work options, this moment should be a fervent call to action for senior leaders to promote women’s advancement in a post-pandemic professional world.

In the coming weeks, thousands of young women will graduate college and enter the workforce, where they will face the most difficult economic times in nearly a decade. These challenges are compounded by recent data showing that women everywhere are missing opportunities to advance through the ranks at work. Gender equality in the workplace is backsliding, erasing many of the gains over recent years. A report from the World Economic Forum suggests that the seismic impact of Covid-19 has extended the time it will take to close the gender gap by 36 years — in other words, a whopping 135.6 years to achieve gender parity.

This should be a wake-up call for leaders and beyond.

Throughout my career, I faced many of these same challenges and roadblocks, but I found a path forward and I commit to sharing it with other women. Here are three critical lessons I learned on my way to becoming CEO that can help other women — whether working remotely or back in the office — to make their mark.

Find your voice and use it wisely

If there’s one thing I could tell my younger self, it would be to speak up early and often. This is not an easy skill to master, especially if you’re remote and don’t get as much face time with senior leadership. It requires a deeper awareness of the other personalities surrounding you at work, confidence in your perspectives and insights, and ultimately an understanding of your company’s priorities and goals. It took time to find my voice, but after years as the only woman on calls, at the conference table, or on Zoom meetings– I will tell you, it is a necessity.

Recognize that you were hired not only for your skills but for the unique perspective you bring to the company. In a tech-driven world, we can often overlook and accept interruptions or talking over from more experienced and outspoken colleagues. Learn to stand up for yourself thoughtfully and with purpose. The more that you develop this skill, the easier it will get.

If you struggle to speak up in meetings, focus on your preparation and projection ahead of Zoom calls. These are areas where you can make measurable progress–and that you completely control. Before your next big meeting, set aside time to closely review all materials in advance and jot down your questions, reactions, and recommendations. Commit to sharing at least two points in a clear voice–don’t be afraid to speak loudly and project to ensure others hear you. During your meeting, hone in on one idea that you most want to communicate based on the conversation. Creating a routine to help you prepare for meetings can have a dramatic impact on your confidence and ability to find your voice in those critical, higher-stress moments.

It’s more important to earn respect than to be liked

As you advance in your career and take on leadership roles, you will have to make and navigate unpopular decisions. It’s inevitable, especially when your peers become your direct reports. Many new leaders struggle with this transition– it can be one of the most difficult you face in your career. Personally, I took time to come to terms with this, but here’s what I ultimately discovered.

Focus your energy on making tough calls and decisions that benefit the company as well as your team. Successful teams need decisive leaders, whether they’re working remotely or in the office. I’ve seen firsthand the missed opportunities and other repercussions when managers get stuck in a cycle of chronic indecision.

Make sure your team can count on you to make the decisions that matter. This can be a challenge at first, but if you use data to inform your strategy and trust your judgment when making difficult decisions, your team will as well. When you choose to earn respect over being liked, it speaks volumes to your team about your values and shows your investment in the business, their success, and larger goals.

For important decisions that require additional thought, I often tell my team–and even my boss–that I will sleep on it, and commit to providing an answer by a specific time the next day. Decide how much time you need to arrive at a thoughtful decision, especially if it’s time-sensitive, then commit and stick to it.

For example, when the pandemic hit and the topic of working from home globally came up, the unprecedented nature of events demanded careful consideration to ensure everyone’s health and safety. I told my leadership team an exact time that I would communicate a decision and that’s what I did. What I witnessed among the team was relief during a very challenging moment, when being decisive helped set employees’ minds at ease.

Make your mark (in big and small moments)

One of the best things that you can do for your career is to make an impact during interactions with your company’s senior executives. Find ways to stand out in big and small moments by being intentional when opportunities arise. Ask yourself: what impression do you want to leave? How can you demonstrate the impact and value you bring to the business? How can you improve the company’s culture?

Every interaction–no matter how brief–matters. Have the opportunity to ask a question or make a suggestion in a company All Hands? Go for it. Do you have an idea to improve the business? Send a one-pager that clearly summarizes your idea to the appropriate leader. I promise they will remember you. This is something you can do easily over email.

In my first year at IAS, I joined a marketing team offsite. One leader from APAC asked me about our culture and how to continue improving the employee experience. She followed up by sharing a very thoughtful summary of specific steps to help enhance our culture. In fact, we incorporated several of her suggestions into our annual plan. Despite being located many time zones from headquarters, this employee made her mark.

Amid the pandemic, career advancement can be challenging. While working remotely, striving to stand out, and experiencing fatigue from months of balancing work and home life, this can be doubly difficult for women. But we can’t let that stop us. You owe it to yourself to seize every opportunity that you can to succeed and to create them when necessary. It’s your career. Make your mark on it.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.