10/22/2013 05:22 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2013

Leaning In: You Can't Do It Alone -- Nor Should You

Are women likely to cooperate with one another because of their caregiving roles -- or are they their own worst enemies because male-dominated culture has trained them to compete against each another?

This feminist puzzle never goes away. It remains ever more relevant in the wake of Sheryl Sandberg's call to women to compete more vigorously in the workplace. What if you "lean in" but other women aren't there to support you, and you end up falling on your face? Yet if you never compete and only cooperate, how can you rise within competitive work environments such as business, finance, and politics?

Tired of this circular debate with no resolution, I was thankful to learn of a third approach: When women cooperate with one another to achieve gender equality, we all benefit -- leading to healthy professional competition.

This nuanced mindset drove last week's global meeting of the Women's Forum for the Economy and Society. This European organization, founded in 2005 by a group of female entrepreneurs in France, examines social and economic issues from women's perspectives while supporting a range of human rights initiatives to help women around the world. For three days in Deauville, France, I joined over a thousand participants -- primarily European corporate women but attended as well by Africans, Russians, and Americans -- who came together to discuss how competition and cooperation can operate in tandem. Author of the book Catfight, about cultural expectations that women compete with one another, I was invited to speak on a panel on how women can "lift as we rise."

The overwhelming conclusion was that we need women's competition as well as cooperation to help women around the world -- ranging from privileged corporate executives to indigent women and children living in small villages in need of basic resources.

A longtime skeptic of the argument that women are more likely to be caring and sharing than men are -- whether because of biological or cultural differences -- I was taken aback by the first speaker at the opening plenary session. "A woman's voice is the first voice we hear. It's the first voice that says, 'Don't hit, share your things.' It's a civilizing voice," declared filmmaker and philanthropist Abigail Disney, producer of the 2011 PBS series Women, War & Peace. Disney continued, "Women throughout history have been preoccupied with peace. I don't know or care if these differences are biological. Women's leadership is the only thing that could change the trajectory of the world" to diminish war and economic imbalance. Disney concluded that those who are in power value power for its own sake -- as opposed to women, who "change the rooms they're in."

I thought of the 1915 utopian novel Herland, in which Charlotte Perkins Gilman imagined a country with three million girls and women -- and no boys or men. Three men on a scientific expedition enter the all-female civilization and are astounded to discover that it is highly advanced. "Everything was beauty, order, perfect cleanness, and the pleasantest sense of home over it all," they marveled. There was no crime, poverty, or inequality; instead, there was an "extremely high sense of solidarity" and a "limitless feeling of sisterhood."

A hundred years later, are we still dreaming of a women-only utopia? Truth is, Herland as Gilman imagined it is far from perfection. Motherhood is a status symbol and not every woman is permitted to reproduce, creating a dystopian hierarchy of worthy and unworthy women.

A senior woman in finance turned to me, asking what I thought about Disney's presentation. I replied that while I respect the Women's Forum's accomplishments, I remain skeptical that a world led by women would be devoid of war. The finance woman didn't miss a beat. She asked me, "But how would we know?"

In fact, surrounded by women in Deauville who have been "leaning in" for years and who have pushed through innumerable personal and structural barriers, I witnessed the tremendous power of women in leadership.

At a breakout session, Pamela Ryckman, the American author of Stiletto Network, spoke about her research on female C-Suite executives who meet regularly in small groups to help each other professionally, sharing tips on angel investors and procuring seed money along with doses of parenting and Louboutin shopping advice. At another session, Maz Kessler discussed how the crowdfunding platform she created one year ago, Catapult, has already funded over 200 women's rights projects in 81 countries. During the gala dinner, Women's Forum president Véronique Morali spoke of the organization's commitment to helping women and children in Africa and the Middle East. A €25,000 grant was awarded to Maria Raharinarivonirina from Madagascar who oversees literacy instruction and agricultural training to some of the most disadvantaged women living in miserable conditions.

I wondered: How many male-founded, male-dominated corporate networking organizations have a core value of easing poverty, hunger, and illiteracy? Putting women in charge may be the best option we have to improve the lives of women -- whether they are leaning in or just trying to stand up.

At another plenary session, Sandrine Devillard, Paris-based director of the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, presented results of a study that explored whether having more female leaders in the workplace makes any discernible organizational difference. McKinsey discovered that companies with multiple women at the highest level do better both organizationally and financially. "There is an undisputed correlation between gender diversity and company performance," Devillard said because when a company has women in leadership, it gains a diversity of leadership styles. The research shows not that women are better nor that men are better -- but that diversity is better.

So how can more women rise to the top? Leaning in is not possible for everyone. Not every woman has the economic resources or domestic safety net enabling her to work longer hours or take professional risks. Sexism, racism, ageism, heterosexism, and other structural barriers remain. Responding to the McKinsey findings, Jeanne Boillet from the French financial services organization EY said that the best way to motivate more women to market themselves to move forward is to help women feel confident. "Corporate culture must change to make women feel more comfortable," she said. "Those at the top have to lead by example."

Minna Salami, an award-winning writer on African feminism, pointedly observed, "If you don't lift other women while you rise, you will lose your own power." It's not only up to individual women to "lean in," although doing so is crucial. It's up to those who have already succeeded, women and men alike, to lift women so that everyone gains.

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