How Women Leaders Can 'Shoulder Up' to Maximize Positive Impact

True change comes from doing more than just advocating.

By Phyllis Newhouse



I believe that women have the power to change history in this moment. I think for the needle to move, though, we must push it together. We have that power because we are better together--and almost all of the women leaders I've met are eager to help other women succeed. But when we ask our female colleagues, "How can I help you?" it's not nearly as powerful as when we ask, "How can I support you?"


That's what I asked my friend Stacey Abrams a few months ago after I learned about her efforts to fight voter suppression initiatives in Georgia, Florida, Michigan, Texas, and other states. As I watched her interviews on TV and read about her efforts in the news, I knew I needed to support her how ever I could, to roll up my sleeves and work with her in a way that would be meaningful and have a positive long-term effect.


When I asked her how I could best support her, Stacey said, "We need to shoulder up to vote."


To me, shouldering up means moving forward together, shoulder to shoulder, to create the maximum positive impact while always being able to add more people to the movement. It's committing to walking side by side with others as they navigate a path that's new to them, but which may not be new to us. It goes far beyond what we typically think of as networking or even mentoring--it means advocating for others through long-term, sustained action.


I like this concept so much that I created a movement called ShoulderUP with Viola Davis, which is dedicated to educating and empowering women around the world by helping them reach their greatest economic, political, and cultural potential. Our organization works to educate women about leadership, influence, and finances by providing resources and advice--for women by women.


Instead of sending a few text messages or making a few phone calls to powerful women in my network, I decided to shoulder up by hosting a virtual event with women business leaders from all over the country. The event gave Stacey the opportunity to educate more than 125 of us at once about voter suppression and how we could fight it. The event amplified Stacey's message, brought more women to the voting rights movement and provided information on specific actions we could all take, such as engaging our state legislators, publicly opposing laws that restrict access to the polls, and educating our workforces to ensure they understand their voting rights. That was just the first step. I'll continue to shoulder up with Stacey and the many others I know who are working to ensure every eligible American can participate in our elections, regardless of race, class, or party.


The power of shouldering up first became apparent to me during my 22-year career in the Army, where I was often the only woman and sometimes the only person of color in the room where key decisions were being made. I realized that all of us who are "the only" must advocate to get more people like us in the room. That means if you're the only female or minority member on a corporate board or in the C-suite, you have to go beyond just telling your colleagues, "You need more people like me around this table." Once you earn a position of power, you have to use that to advocate for more diversity and shoulder up with others to guide them along the path you've already successfully navigated.


It's crucial for women business leaders to shoulder up because, despite our significant gains, women still hold only about 20 percent of board seats at S&P 500 companies, even though companies led by women have historically performed 226 percent better than the S&P average, according to Credit Suisse. Also, companies with at least three female directors have generated a 66 percent higher return on invested capital, a 42 percent higher return on sales, and a 53 percent higher return on equity, according to Catalyst. And it's crucial because companies with ethnically and culturally diverse management teams tend to do 35 percent better financially, according to McKinsey. When we shoulder up, we succeed.


How to Develop Your Power to Shoulder Up

If you're a woman entrepreneur or leader, there are three actions you can take to develop your power to shoulder up to have the greatest positive impact:


1. Commit to meeting 100 percent of your potential. Every leader needs to understand her life potential and figure out what proportion of that potential she's currently tapping. I check my potential m