Don’t Underestimate the Power of Women Supporting Each Other at Work

When we were just starting Equita, Katie Burke and I reached out to other women financial planners to find out what they would value most in a business platform. By far, the number-one resource women wanted was a collaborative network of their female industry peers, who they could reach out to for business and client solutions. They wanted to share best practices and receive support and encouragement from women who faced the same challenges they did.

In a recent blog post, we talked about Anne Welsh McNulty’s Harvard Business Review article, which speaks to the value and the benefit of networks for women. Not only do networks provide support and connection, but they also have a tremendous impact on women’s success in business.

When Women Support Each Other, Amazing Things Happen

Don’t underestimate the power of women connecting with and supporting each other at work. Over the course of my career, I have gone from being a rookie accountant to a managing director at an investment bank. Those experiences taught me that conversations between women have massive benefits for the individual and the organization.

When I graduated college in the 1970s, I believed that women would quickly achieve parity at all levels of professional life; I believed that we had “arrived.” I viewed the lack of women at the top as more of a “pipeline” problem, not a cultural one.

But the support I expected to find from female colleagues — the feeling of sisterhood in this mission — rarely survived first contact within the workplace.

When I was a first-year accountant at a Big Eight firm (now part of the Big Four), I kept asking the only woman who was senior to me if she wanted to go to lunch together. Finally, she told me, “Look, there’s only room for one female partner here. You and I are not going to be friends.”

Sadly, her reaction was rational. Even today, senior-level women who champion younger women are more likely to get negative performance reviews, according to a 2016 study in The Academy of Management Journal.

My brusque colleague’s behavior has a (misogynistic) academic name: the “Queen Bee” phenomenon. Some senior-level women distance themselves from junior women, perhaps because they feel they will be more accepted by their male peers.

As a study published in The Leadership Quarterly concludes, this is a response to inequality at the top, not the cause. Trying to separate oneself from a marginalized group is, sadly, a strategy that’s frequently employed in the workplace. It’s easy to believe that there’s limited space at the top for people who look like you when you can see it with your own eyes.

By contrast, men are 46% more likely to have a higher-ranking advocate in the office, according to economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett. This makes an increasing difference in representation as you go up the org chart. According to a 2016 McKinsey report, “Women in the Workplace,” white men make up 36% of entry-level corporate jobs, and white women make up 31%. But at the very first rung above that, those numbers change to 47% for white men and 26% for white women — a 16% drop. For women of color, the drop from 17% to 11% is a plunge of 35%.

People tend to think that whatever conditions exist now are “normal.” Maybe this (charitably) explains men’s blind spots: At companies where only one in 10 senior leaders are women, nearly 50% of men felt women were “well represented” in leadership, according to McKinsey.

Connection Is Key

Worse than being snubbed by the woman above me was the lack of communication between women at my level. Of the 50 auditors in my class, five were women; all of us were on different client teams. At the end of my first year, I was shocked and surprised to learn that all four of the other women had quit or been fired — shocked at the outcome, and surprised because we hadn’t talked amongst ourselves enough to understand what was happening.

During that year, I had difficult experiences with the men I worked with — they criticized me, commented on my looks, or flatly said I didn’t deserve to work there. But I had no idea that the other women around me were facing similar challenges. We expected our performance to be judged as objectively as our clients’ books, and we didn’t realize the need to band together until it was too late. Each of us had dealt with those challenges individually — and obviously not all successfully.

I resolved not to let either of those scenarios happen again; I wanted to be aware of what was going on with the women I worked with. As I advanced in my career, I hosted women-only lunches and created open channels of communication. I made it a point to reach out to each woman who joined the firm with an open-door policy — I shared advice and my personal experiences, including how to say no to doing traditionally gendered (and uncompensated) tasks like getting coffee or taking care of the office environment. To personal assistants, who might find some of those tasks unavoidable, I emphasized that I was available to talk about any issues in the workplace; I stressed that their roles were critical to the organization, and that they should be treated with respect.

These women-only lunches were essential, and provided a dedicated space to share challenges and successes. Coming together as a group made people realize that their problems weren’t just specific to them, but, in fact, they were collective obstacles. All of this communication vastly improved the flow of information, and relieved tension and anxiety. It reassured us that though our jobs were challenging, we were not alone. In doing so, I hope it lowered the attrition rate of women working at my company — rates that are, across all corporate jobs, stubbornly higher for women than men, especially women of color.

My own daughter has arrived to a workplace that has not changed nearly as much as I had hoped.

Although 40% of Big Four accounting firm employees are women, they make up only 19% of audit partners. Only one in five C-suite members is a woman, and they are still less likely than their male peers to report that there are equal opportunities for advancement.

So, what are women in the workplace to do, when research shows that we’re penalized for trying to lift each other up? The antidote to being penalized for sponsoring women may just be to do it more — and to do it vocally, loudly, and proudly — until we’re able to change perceptions. There are massive benefits for the individual and the organization when women support each other.

The advantages of sponsorship for protégés may be clear, such as getting access to opportunities and having their achievements brought to the attention of senior management. But sponsors gain from these relationships, too; ultimately, they become known as cultivators of talent and as leaders in their companies. Importantly, organizations that welcome such sponsorship benefit as well — they are able to create a culture of support, where talent is recognized and rewarded for all employees. Sponsorship (which involves connecting a protégé with opportunities and contacts and advocating on their behalf, as opposed to the more advice-focused role of mentorship) is also an excellent way for men to be allies in the office.

There’s More Work to Do

I’m thrilled by the rise of women’s organizations like Sallie Krawchek’s Ellevate Network, a professional network of women that support each other across companies to change the culture of business at large. (I’m especially fond of it because it began as “85 Broads,” a network of Goldman Sachs alumnae that drew its name from the old GS headquarters address before Krawcheck, a Merrill alumna, bought and expanded it.) That network spawned a sibling, Ellevest, an investment firm focused on women and companies that advance women. Other ventures include Dee Poku-Spalding’s WIE (Women Inspiration and Enterprise) leadership network, whose mission is to support women in their career ambitions by providing real-world learning via access to established business leaders. I am attempting to make my own dent in this area, having endowed the McNulty Institute for Women’s Leadership at my alma mater, Villanova, which supports new research and leadership development opportunities for women.

These are wonderful supplements, but they can’t replace the benefits of and the necessity for connections among women inside a company — at and across all levels. It reduces the feeling of competition for an imaginary quota at the top. It helps other women realize, “Oh, it’s not just me” — a revelation that can change the course of a woman’s career. It’s also an indispensable way of identifying bad actors and systemic problems within a company.

The program doesn’t need to be massive, and you don’t need to overthink it — in fact, there’s a healthy debate about affinity groups run from the top down. Whether you are a first-year employee or a manager, just reach out and make those connections. I’m guessing you’ll find that the return on investment on the cost of a group lunch will be staggering.

If you’d like to learn more about how Equita Financial Network can help women-led financial planning firms succeed through connection and collaboration, please contact us.

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