I recently wrote an article titled, "Women Helping Women Isn't Just A Rallying Cry. It's Good Business." The piece got 16k LinkedIn likes and 287 comments, which in today’s digital world means it went viral. I was really proud of it, because it was about a subject that I stand behind in theory and in practice: that women helping women isn’t just a rallying cry, it’s good business.
I was inspired when I saw comments from people like Kate Katz, the owner at All Hands Workshop, who said: “As a new entrepreneur bringing something new to the table in soft skills development, having a strong female support network has been essential. Supporting other women is as essential to me as air and water... it’s a reciprocal relationship (stronger in some than others) that has nurtured me and help me to manifest some of my biggest ideas.”
But then, as it so often does, something happened that made me think that we could be doing more to support and uplift each other as women. In this case, it was the Forbes 100 Most Innovative Leaders list, which only included one woman. Despite the admission from Forbes itself that there was a lack of female representation on the list, which they attributed to simple mathematics, it stung, and not just for me. The article was widely discussed and criticised as yet another example of how the boys’ club of (mostly) old white men still hasn’t been dismantled. I could point to plenty of female entrepreneurs who are innovating and leading every day, and somehow, they’re still not getting recognised. It’s not ALL bad news: Inc. just made history by putting a visibly pregnant Audrey Gelman, CEO of The Wing, on the cover of its 100 Female Founders issue. That’s a step in the right direction.
All of this got me thinking: I do believe that women supporting each other in business is at an all-time high, but given the publication of the Forbes list, it’s clear that we could be doing more and, as it’s Women’s Small Business Month, why not now? Research from Ellevate Network shows the same concern: in a recent poll, 55% of women still thought we need to increase our efforts to support each other. Plus, 29% of respondents said that there could be more collaboration vs. competing between women, and 27% thought that we could all be networking and making more formal recommendations.
I do as much as I can to support and promote other women, but between being an executive who travels for my job, juggling two young boys, trying to keep up a healthy marriage and being a supportive friend, there isn’t always a ton of time to reflect on what I could be doing more of. I was looking for inspiration, so I reached out to leaders across different industries to get their advice on both the personal and the corporate level. Here’s what they had to say.
“Competition has its place, bitchiness doesn’t.”
Fi Bendall, CEO of The Female Social Network, thinks that we need to reframe competition. “I take very seriously the inclusion of my team whatever their age. Unfortunately, I have seen some corporate women...feel they have to protect their position, mainly from male colleagues, forcing them to almost act like them. It leads to loneliness and isolation. We aren’t male so we don’t need to act like alpha males. Women together are so powerful, men and women together are even more powerful, and we need to get to that place in society and in our business culture. Competition has its place, bitchiness doesn’t.”
“Actively promote women.”
I admire advertising guru Cindy Gallop, who founded The Social Sex Revolution, for how vocal she is on shouting out womens’ achievements. She says, “I’m very attuned to the amazing work that women do in this world because it’s so undervalued and underappreciated by men, so I call out women doing amazing things any chance I get—in meetings, on social media, in conversations. We have to ACTIVELY promote each other, everything from doing that on social media to recommending women for conferences, going with women investors, talking to someone senior in your company.”
“Focus on your superpower.”
We try to do it all, but Jennifer Justice, Co-Founder of The Justice Dept, thinks we should celebrate what makes us special. “We are all great at something, and should be hired for that...At work, we feel like we need to do it all—be the boss, accountant, lawyer, business development, HR, everything. That is not how you scale a business. Women need to hire those specialists for the areas that they are not skilled at and give those roles to women. It supports the ecosystem,” she says.
“Sponsorship is key.”
As the Vice President, Innovation, Global Health and Policy Communication at Johnson & Johnson and founder of media platform for Southeast Asian women, Seema Kumar thinks we need an open-door policy. “We need to notice if women do not have a seat at the table and do something about it. Also, senior women leaders should have an open-door policy, so others can come and talk about concerns and issues with their department and vertical heads, not just their human resources heads. Only when those who need to share their voices know they will be heard and follow-on actions taken, without repercussions professionally or personally, will we start to see positive changes.”
“Empathy solves everything.”
I agree with Mara LeCocq, Brand & Community Director at Fishbowl, who thinks that we have to try to understand each other better. “We all have different experiences that drive our behaviours. If I see a woman who has competitive, ‘backstabby’ vibes, I try to befriend her...Insecurity always hides behind competitive behaviour,” she says. “I support her in public and in private. Telling their boss in front of everyone in a meeting that she’s awesome is something we all appreciate and need, when we deserve it. Also, it helps put her guard down, and ultimately helps the whole team. The competitive woman also needs validation.”
“Collaboration is hard but worth it.”
Cate Luzio, Founder of Luminary, sees both the challenge and value in partnerships. She explains, “competition is easy and is healthy until it’s not; collaboration is hard but it’s worth it. Creating partnership and working together takes time and effort but if we don’t put in that time, we further create silos that will need to be broken down. Diversifying our networks, team up to help move forward by sharing who/what we know, lend our voices and support at the table for other women. Lead by example. We are breaking down these silos at Luminary to include all women (and our males allies) not just one type/kind of women.”
“Pay it forward.”
You can succeed while bringing others along for the ride, Laura Mignott, CEO of DFlash, says. “Be human, be helpful and be authentic. I’ve built my career by lifting as I climb and paying it forward. There is no greater thing you can do than to give to others. No one needs to spend every waking minute, but you can by being a good person, following up and being nice.”
“Be more honest.”
Everyone’s life may LOOK perfect on social media, but Dee Poku, Co-Founder & CEO of WIE, thinks we need to get real. “We should be more honest about the peaks and valleys of navigating our lives and our careers. The tendency on social media is to only share the good stuff. I know several friends who have left social media, and it can be hard if you’re struggling with something, whether it’s having kids or raising money,” she says.” We’d be doing ourselves less of a disservice if we were more honest about the valleys, not just on social media but in our smaller circles.”
“Create supportive environments.”
Alicia Syrett, Founder & CEO, Pantegrion Capital says we need to rethink one-size-fits-all corporate policies: “companies can create a supportive environment for women by examining their current policies and update them for best practices (e.g. providing flex time, paid leave, child care leave, and ‘returnships’). Next, to encourage camaraderie, firms can create sponsorship/mentorship programs, training opportunities for employees to learn and collaborate together, and fund internal innovation projects led by teams working together towards a goal. Companies can also reiterate the importance of diversity and team-led initiatives as a core company value. Finally, ensuring equal and diverse representation across the company and in all leadership roles discourages a scarcity/competitive mentality and demonstrates that the company’s environment is one where all have the opportunity to excel.”
“Be intentional about your network.”
We have to stand behind each other and create opportunities, Kristy Wallace, the CEO of Ellevate Network, says. “Take action. If you see someone interrupted in a meeting, speak up. It really takes a community to get by in today's world, and it's really important to me that I actively participate in that community every day. Listen, not with the intent to respond, but with the intent to understand. The more that we take the time to recognise and understand the challenges and obstacles others are facing in their lives, and the more we can do to change it, the more we can actively create change for others. We also need to be intentional about who is in our network. We need to be intentionally hiring diverse candidates in the workplace, connecting with diverse peers, and building those relationships.”
“Find comfort in knowing you’re not alone.”
Jennifer Willey, Founder & CEO, Wet Cement is an expert at creating programs that help people make connections. “When people see how we are alike AND different, we can find those connection points but still recognise our unique gifts. The easiest way to do this is to involve women in programs or projects where they are passionate about the topic/mission or where they know they need help—then, they can lean on each other and find comfort in knowing they are not alone. Impostor Syndrome is one of the great equalisers. I haven't done a workshop yet where there hasn't been a woman (or man, for that matter!) who can relate in some way and is excited to overcome it.”
“Make relevant connections.”
This is my own personal mantra. Meaningful connections are essential for us to build stronger networks; it’s why I created the Connect4Women initiative this past spring, with the goal of connecting four women every day for a month. It’s not only something that I think is important, it’s also something that I just enjoy doing. Madeline Albright once said that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” If we can each find a way to support each other in a way that also brings us joy, that’s a win-win.