Women Helping Women? It’s Complicated

“One of the most beautiful gifts in the world is the gift of encouragement. When someone encourages you, that person helps you over a threshold you might otherwise never have crossed on your own.” John O’Donohue

I recently read a blog by a man named Fred Swaniker with a pang of pure, unadulterated envy. Swaniker is a successful entrepreneur who declares loudly (and delightfully) that he’s not self-made. “I had Jon,” he explains. Jon was his boss’s boss’s boss in his first job. Jon is the man he credits with giving him his first big leadership break, his firm’s sponsorship of his Stanford MBA, and the first investment in the business he created a decade later. In all, Jon gifted Swaniker with 22 years of mentoring, promotions, connections and money. I’ve never had a Jon. Have you?

Who Supports You?

How many women have ever had this kind of experience – especially from another woman? Judging by the decades of complaints I’ve heard from women about other women – that they aren’t very helpful, that they pull up the ladder, that they become Queen Bees as soon as they taste a tidbit of power – or a seat on a male-dominated team – it’s still not as common as we might like. In just the past week, I’ve heard three complaints of this sort, including an entire workshop titled ‘Beyond the Queen Bee Syndrome.’

I admit I have yearned for a Jon of my own. I still remember approaching a well-known author at a women’s conference some 20 years ago asking her if she would mentor me. She laughed awkwardly, said I didn’t need a mentor – and made a dash for the bathroom.

Men have heard these complaints from women about women, and it shapes their perception. On a panel I facilitated at the Women in Finance Summit, the CEO of Genpact, Tyger Tyagarajan, said that women had to get better at supporting each other. He wondered why I was suggesting male leaders should be pushing women, if women weren’t doing it themselves?

So is it true that women don’t support women? Do we expect men to do it in their stead?

Where ‘It’s Complicated’ Comes In

1.    Power, Not Gender, Promotes People. The most effective sponsors and supporters of humans are those with the power to assign roles, budgets and promotions. Most CEOs and leadership teams are still dominated by men. It’s not really men we are expecting to push and develop gender balance in organisations, it is leaders. Why would we even expect women to promote women more than their male colleagues? That’s just another form of sexism. It’s also so much easier for men to push gender balance in male-dominated organisations than it is for women. Men get rewarded for their progressive, enlightened leadership, while the female CEOs I’ve worked with get accused (mostly by men) of pushing a self-interested, feminist agenda. (Of course, if it’s a female-dominated workplace, then women have to push for more balance, which can, in my experience, be equally difficult and controversial).

2.    Generational Shifts. When Women Move Up – They Step Up. Insecure people – of any gender – don’t typically help other people. They are too busy trying to survive. Especially in contexts and cultures that make them uncomfortable, unsafe or unrecognised. For a few generations, women had to claw their way up an unwelcoming greasy pole – largely by becoming men. As women become more powerful, they pass it on in all kinds of ways (see below). With every successive generation, more women are becoming more comfortable with and in power and using their new-found strengths to support other women. Ursula von der Leyen, who heads the European Commission, used to be Angela Merkel’s Minister of Family Affairs. Kristalina Georgieva, who now heads the IMF, used to report into Christine Lagarde. One of the first women-to-women successions was at Xerox, back in 2009, when Anne Mulcahy appointed Ursula Burns to succeed her as CEO, the first black woman to run a Fortune 100 company.

3.    Gender balanced workplaces create gender balanced sponsors. The complaints about ‘women not helping other women’ largely disappear in workplaces where both men and women feel skilled and comfortable in developing a gender balanced talent pool and customer base. And where everyone is promoted, sponsored and developed in a fair, transparent and balanced way. These are the workplaces that can legitimately claim to be the meritocracies they all believe themselves to be. They are still the exception. Covid and its consequences have not helped.

Women Increasingly Support Women

There are a huge and growing list of initiatives run by women seeking to support and accelerate the opportunities of other women. Here’s just an emblematic few that I have been involved with. They cover venture capital funding of women-led companies, leadership and MBA programs designed for women, and return-to-work support for women navigating the corporate world. There are thousands of these the world over. There is certainly one near you.

  • WIC Africa: a West African investment fund where almost 100 African women are investing in local female entrepreneurs, led by Thiaba Camara Sy. Recognising the near-impossibility of access to capital for women in West Africa, WIC invests in female founders and their ideas.
  •  Voulez Capital: One of Europe’s first funds aimed at early-stage women-run ventures, founded by Anya Navidski. Very attuned to the extraordinary lack of funding for women from the world’s venture capitalists and how funding female entrepreneurs helps meet women’s needs.
  • Vedica Scholars (India): A women-only MBA programme in INDIA founded by Anuradha Das Mathur and led by a group of women faculty and executives. Its ground-breaking program differentiates itself from your typical business school by integrating women’s needs and career cycles into the heart of the curriculum.
  • Balance in Business: A mentoring platform run by INSEAD alumni, led by Florence Hamilton, BIB offers female alumni two mentors: a man and a woman with 25+ years of experience. Hugely popular and impactful.
  • Leaders Plus: A return-to-work leadership program for new parents, founded by Verena Hefti. A supportive environment with coaching accompaniment for ambitious parents determined to navigate their careers proactively.
  • Young Women’s Trust: A UK-focused organisation supporting young women under 30 who are living on low or no pay, particularly relevant post-pandemic.

The idea that women don’t support other women is laughable – and dangerous. It’s an insidious form of sexism that divides to conquer. Don’t buy it. Don’t spread it. Instead ask yourself, who have you supported this year?

If we’ve never enjoyed a Jon of our own, hopefully we can become someone else’s.

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