Women helping women

Women helping women... myth or reality in today’s modern professional world?

Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, famously said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” How many female professionals deserve a place in that hell? In our experience sadly all too many would qualify. The women's movement hoped that, as women climbed the corporate ladder, they would enhance the working environment for their sisters. What has been the reality?

The evidence suggests that if there is ever to be a quantum change in the number of women achieving career success, be it through women’s initiatives or otherwise, it is women helping other women who can make the difference. And according to recent research by INSEAD into women executives, the more gender balanced the management of an organisation is; the more likely it is to be successful.

Popularity - avoiding the downside

However, there is almost no hard evidence showing women helping other women to succeed and a great deal of anecdotal evidence suggesting the exact opposite. A number of theories explain why this may be. Some commentators highlight how competitive for popularity women are by nature. They explain that from the very start, women compete with the other women in their family for the attention of others and that when they go to school they keep on competing be it for their teacher's attention, or to be the best friend of the most popular girl or boy so for women life is a popularity contest which continues when they enter the world of work. Of course, men are competitive too but in a different way. Women compete for approval in order to support their concept of self-worth and to gain self-esteem rather than to win. If this analysis is right, then it appears that women are so intent on competing with each other that they seem to lose sight of the bigger picture, which is that by supporting each other they can change the social/cultural mold of their workplace and ultimately, improve the position of all women, including themselves.

What compounds the challenge though is that women are said to be socialised differently from males which impacts on their ability to negotiate political liaisons both generally and with other women. This leads to a lack of working together in their common interest. Various studies suggest that women struggle to help other women unless they actually like them, whereas male professionals won’t worry about whether they like their colleagues or not, they just want to be part of the winning team and will do what it takes to be included.

Gender-balance - creating more success

Another possible cause is that successful women in organisations today have rarely got there because they demonstrate the so-called more feminine leadership attributes of collaborative behaviour and nurturing conduct which today are recognised as crucial for the success of most businesses. Many have succeeded because they have (had to) become ‘honorary males’; adopting the traditional values of their male counterparts. This has been called “the Queen Bee syndrome” (Stiller Rikleen). We have observed numerous instances of senior women being totally unsympathetic to other women, often taking a harder line than their male colleagues and also judging female colleagues more harshly than they do their male counterparts inappraisals and for promotion. It is suggested that they do this in order to retain their often lone place at the top of the organisation. These Queen Bees may also be seen by others as bullies and research (survey by Unison and Company magazine) shows that the most common bully is an older woman in a more senior professional position.

Opportunity in numbers

The seeming unwillingness of women to help other women and hence, themselves should not be seen as a convenient excuse for organisations to do nothing. On the contrary, this is a call to businesses which genuinely want to improve the chances for women to succeed and future-proof their business, to get the powerful and successful woman already in place actively supporting other women. If women are not willing to act for altruistic reasons they must see that their own sense of security would actually be strengthened by having more women succeed so that together they form a stronger and more influential group. A Tale of “O” by Rosabeth Moss Kanter is used to describe the impact of unequal representation on the position of all women. It shows how successful women could be even more secure and able to be authentically themselves were there more women at their level around them.

Many organizations in the States and a few in England have put in place women’s initiatives aimed at achieving this end. Often these focus on using female role models and mentors to provide active support to women seeking proactively to manage their career progression. Yet if our premise is right, these approaches are unlikely to be effective as, in our experience, too many of the role models identified are Queen Bees and they typically repel many of the women they are supposed to be aiming to encourage and support. That said, in our view, every successful woman in a leadership position should make it her business to see that more women are promoted to director level roles so that there are sufficient numbers to ensure that the “tipping point” towards a gender balanced organisation is reached.

Successful strategies or missed opportunities

Linking women in business and industry especially as a means to creating opportunities for business development has a direct influence in defining career success. There are numerous women-to-women networks in all walks of industry and commerce. We wonder though whether many females in leadership positions actively help other women to succeed by directing business to them? In our coaching work, we hear stories of women who find the courage to ask for work or an introduction that might lead to work only to hear nothing from their erstwhile contact again. We know from the statistics that there are more women in senior positions in business yet there is little evidence that this has raised business flow or opportunities for other women.

What makes it even harder is that often women choose (for a variety of reasons) to stay at their desk diligently to finish their work and so miss out on important networking opportunities. What may initially be regarded as a strong work ethic of quality work produced on time and to budget (creating client trust), instead reinforces a weakness in a core capability of becoming a successful leader, and is often an Achilles heel to promotion – lack of exposure to markets and consequently business development.

So close yet so far

Despite statics showing progress for women in the workplace generally (Economist, January 2010)), there remains a gaping gender divide. Research by Catalyst, shows that among graduates MBA programmes around the world women continue to lag men at every single career stage, right from their first professional jobs. They say the reports of progress in advancement, compensation, and career satisfaction are at best overstated, at worst just plain wrong. It is discouraging indeed to know that at this rate equal representation at the top will not be achieved until 2070.

Time to quicken the pace

In this piece, we have highlighted how the lack of women in key positions often narrows the opportunities for others and sustains women’s invisibility and inaudibility generally. We have also commented on the failure of women in leadership positions to engage actively with other women to help them be more successful. We have argued that women will not be seen or heard until enough women reach the top positions.

But we have four suggestions to help to turn the tide:

For more information on this and other related topics including our definitive and simple to use guide “13 Practical Steps to Achieving Gender Balance” contact: Ann Halpern of Womenlawyers.biz at annhalpern@talktalk.net" or Weedie Sisson of People First Ltd at weedie@peoplefirst.ltd.uk

Ann Halpern: For the last 20 years, Ann has pioneered interventions - as a trainer, mentor and coach - aimed at helping women to succeed. As a lawyer qualified in the use of a range of psychometric tools, Ann has worked in the City, most recently as Director of Practice and Organisational Management for Norton Rose LLP, and is now focusing exclusively on supporting women to achieve their career aspirations through womenlawyers.biz.

Weedie Sisson: For over 15 years, Weedie has led organisational change and made transformational impact within a number of professional service firms. In particular, she helps lawyers and other professionals articulate and attain their goals and career aspirations. Underpinning her practical experience, Weedie holds MBA and Psychology degrees. She is principal of People First coaching and consulting, helping many women improve their personal and professional influence at work.