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Jan Sharry Headshot

Are We Just a Bunch of Mean Girls?

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Lately, I have been thinking about the need for women to be more supportive of other women. Why should this be so hard? And why are women seen as competitors of each other rather than as allies? Have we become an adult, business-world version of teenage "mean girls"?

I hear many stories of women who are undermined by other women. Others tell stories of women who make it to the top and then make no effort to help other women join them. The negative comments about some women leaders include terms like pushy, controlling, self-centered and a real bully -- not a great description of a good mentor or sponsor.

How true is this stereotypical picture? And, if true, how do we change the perception?

I do think the picture is true, but not completely. There are many women out there that support, mentor and care for other women in the work place. But not all of us do. And all of us, from time to time (including me), find ourselves focusing on a women's faults rather than her achievements or value. I even notice that I forgive men more for their imperfections than I do women. I expect near perfection from women.

We all know the Madeline Albright quote about how there is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women. With this threat of a very painful and hot eternity, how can we as leaders become more supportive of other women?

  • Recognize the problem. Women in the business world are doing better. Many more have reached the top. But there is still bias (some call it second-generation bias) and there is still a long way to go to achieve true equality. We all must recognize that we need to help mold a world where women will be given the same opportunities and get the same pay as men. And we need women to help lift each other up. Just because many of our lives are better, it doesn't mean that we should ease up on the push for other women. Every day we should question how we react to other women and think about what we could do to help them.
  • Be comfortable in our own accomplishments and don't question your, and our, right to be at the top. If we feel better about what we have achieved, we won't feel threatened by the starstruck ingénue who is seeking a way to the top. We need to own our accomplishments, sing our own praises, raise our hands, be forceful and decisive and forgive ourselves for our own faults. Confidence will bring security and with security, I believe, we can endorse and help others.
  • Adopt a no tolerance policy on bullying. This should go without saying. We should call people on the carpet who intimidate and berate anyone (including women). We owe it to the work place to make sure that people understand how this affects other people and how this damages all that we are trying to achieve. And we should think twice before we slander or gossip about another woman.
  • Work to create more space at the top for women. The piece of the pie needs to be larger for women and all opportunities at the top should be equally available to men and women. We should not fall into the mindset that men are better at sales, more deft at business development or that women are better at handling personnel issues. We all do have different skill sets -- but part of getting to the top is to use our skills in all sorts of different ways. Promote a woman you know to a position never before held by a woman. That will lead to change.
  • Don't fall for the stereotypical picture. Almost every senior woman has been criticized for being "too aggressive," "not liked by her peers" or even "difficult." When a woman exerts her power, the normal reaction is criticizing her and her behavior. She is "acting like a man" and the discussion of how she acts lead to fewer opportunities. We need to challenge these stereotypes at every turn. When a woman is criticized using these words, we need to point out aggressively that the same behavior would be viewed differently if the woman were a man.
  • But don't forget to put on your nice persona. Over the years, many women have learned and developed some bad habits. Too often we have been way too abrasive and aggressive. We need to operate in the world we live in. We shouldn't give up and retreat, but we should try to make our asks nicer and based on concrete and legitimate information. We should focus our asks on the institution's needs -- not our own self-interest. Not easy. Not fair. But we need progress and we can be smarter to achieve what we want.

Please note that I did not suggest that you should pick out a few women and mentor them. Most of us have very little time to do this. Mentoring is important, but it must come from an authentic relationship based on closeness. We can't dictate mentoring and for some of us mentoring is not easy, given all the life commitments we have. Instead, consider sponsorship. Also, consider being a visible, solid, respected role model for all women. This can be equally as beneficial for them.

Most important, stop and think before you criticize another woman. Make sure you understand why you are doing this. Are you doing this to help them or to further your own interests? Make sure your criticism is directed to them and not to a large group that may not have the complete view of their positives. Also, make sure your criticism is constructive. Give them specific ways that they can change to further their individual career goals. And follow up with them.

It takes time, but maybe we can change a perception.