Examining the myth that women don’t support each other

| March 5, 2012 | Comments (1)

The woman@work column appears weekly in The Globe and Mail.

I recently engaged in two separate conversations, one with a man at the height of his career and one with a woman in the same spot. While both advocate on behalf of women’s advancement in the workplace, they felt they needed to expose a dirty secret on this topic.

Women just don’t help each other out.

This sentiment, that women don’t support other women or even undermine their efforts, keeps coming up in this dialogue on women and careers. The persistence of this belief surprises me. I recall some instances where I felt other women treated me unfairly early on in my career but the last few years have been filled with examples where women, even strangers, supported my professional endeavours.

Yet, the notion that women will often trip others who struggle up their own career ladder appears to be so widespread that it needs to be tackled head on. Perhaps we need communal therapy to self-examine this trait. Ladies, it’s time for introspection. Do we genuinely feel too competitive or are our expectation of support just too high for members of our gender? I’d argue that it’s a little bit of both.

“I think it’s a conundrum,” mused Mary Aitken, managing director and founder of Verity, a business, social and wellness club for women in Toronto. Ms. Aitken suggests that a scarcity of women at the very tops of their industry or corporation may spur a sense of competition that trumps our inclination to be supportive.

“We don’t have hundreds of years of experience running corporations, so we’re still building our confidence. Twenty years from now, we’ll look back and wonder why this whole confidence thing was such a big deal,” she suggested.

To bolster women’s support network, Ms. Aitken created Verity as an answer to the “Old Boys Club.” A former investment banker, she spent years watching women rush home from work to handle the various obligations of their ‘second shift’ while men often took the time to socialize over drinks. That provided a priceless opportunity to informally share ideas and form relationships, critical for advancement.

Dr. Kathy Kram, a professor of organizational behavior at Boston University, believes that the rise of professional women’s groups over the last 20 years shows an evolving trend on women supporting each other. She explains that the nagging persistence of this theory that women don’t support each other comes down to our social expectation of women as nurturers. As women increasingly secure more senior positions in a corporation, their ability to nurture conflicts with the male model of effective leadership.

“As women advance, they are expected to fit the male executive model. If they start prioritizing the company’s goals and strategic objectives and are stretched because they are in an increasingly senior role they may have to put boundaries around how much they can support junior women,” explained Dr. Kram, adding that this is seen as a lack of support rather than a necessity given their time constraints.

As a Catch-22, since our social expectations differ, when a woman turns down an opportunity to mentor a more junior woman in her organization, it may be perceived more harshly than if a man did the same.

Logically speaking, there’s no reason why men are more or less likely to mentor or sponsor other men in the workplace than women are but the issue is given less scrutiny.

“Women do help one another a lot and are predisposed to help but like everything else around women in business, when they don’t it is given undue attention,” argued Stephanie MacKendrick, president of Canadian Women in Communications, a national organization dedicated to the advancement of women in the communications sector. She observed that women who do come across as being unwilling to support other women have often been forced to battle their way through largely male business environments.

“There is a thought process that says, “I had to fight and give up a lot to get here, I don’t see why women who follow shouldn’t do the same,” said Ms. MacKendrick, adding that she often finds these women are open to informal channels to assist others but resist the idea of feeling obligated to automatically help the next generation.

Could this sentiment that women feel threatened by other women be generational? My gut instinct tells me that the notion that only a select number of women will be allowed to rise to the top needs to be on its way out.

“Ten years go it was more common to hear the stories: everyone knew about a woman who climbed the ladder, kicked the ladder away, and maybe even let it land on someone else,” reflected Jo Miller, CEO of Women’s Leadership Coaching, a U.S.-based company that provides programming for women’s groups, mainly in the high tech sector.

“Thankfully all this is changing and there is a stronger culture of women helping women,” she observed.

Tags: , , mentor

Category: Women@Work

About Leah Eichler: Leah Eichler is co-founder of Femme-O-Nomics. View author profile.

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  1. Frank McCloskey says:

    Leah, several years ago I attended a Women of Color Leadership Conference annually hosted by Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Jane Smith is the Conference Convener and it’s always wonderful to hear Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s insights. At this particular Conference and during a panel discussion, I first heard about the “horns of dilemma” women often face in the workplace. As a man, I am scripted to believe I am suppose to be in charge, have all the answers (if I don’t, I’ll make one up and convince you I know what I’m talking about and not even realize I’m doing it), and that my organizational title and rank define me as a person. Embedded in this pathology is the closer “diversity” gets to me (individually) as a straight, white, Christian, temporarily abled-bodies man (individually) the MORE negative that dimension of diversity becomes. Additionally, I default to myths that women can’t be as capable as I am, are in their job
    because of affirmative action and quotas, and are given an unfair advantage over me as a man. As a result, women have to extend a tremendous amount of energy getting men to
    be comfortable with your gender that has nothing to do with talent and job performance.
    (Dr. Ancella Livers refers to this as “miasma”…..toxic workplace fog and air. It’s not visible,
    but you know it’s there). Unfortunately, miasma tends to increase the higher up the ranks
    a women goes. Men of course do not have to deal with this. We naturally belong if we
    don’t rock the boat too much, and it’s assumed we can do the job until we prove
    otherwise. So now the “horns of dilemma.” If a women executive is at the top of the
    organization, the men around the table are likely disguising their gender biases (as
    perviously outlined). We either default to this person to do the heavy lifting regarding
    gender workplace equality (a very convenient male check-off BTW), or suspect that she
    has a hidden agenda to advance other women in the organization. As a result, the female
    executive has to work even harder to prove her competencies and performance and not be
    seen as having a “diversity” agenda. It’s an elaborate and tiring set-up for failure. At the
    very same time, other women in the organization are looking up and hoping, expecting
    your presence at the top of the organization will make an immediate difference. As a result
    of this dynamic, many women who are moving up the ranks of middle management, often
    disassociate themselves from women affinity or resources groups. They are trying to
    manage this perception by men that they have an agenda to advance other women that is
    more important than job