I enjoy speaking on panels about women leaders. There’s often a feeling of colleagueship and sisterhood among the panelists and a sense that it’s not just us, that we’re surrounded by our tribe.
During a panel I was moderating about mentoring as a means to promote women in industries and occupations where women are under-represented, a young woman asked a great question, “Are our expectations of senior women too high?” The young lawyer in the early stages of her career went on to tell us about a time where she sought out guidance from a senior woman lawyer at her boutique firm and was rebuffed. It caught her off guard. It just wasn’t at all what she expected would happen, nor what she thought should happen, and there were plenty of women there who seemed to feel the same way.
Is it fair to expect that senior women take an active interest in other women’s careers? I’ve been thinking about that question ever since I heard it being asked.
I’ve been a mentor to plenty of women and men and I’ve known lots of senior women who find joy in being allies, advisors, mentors and sponsors. They seek it out and find it rewarding. Yet there are women who don’t initiate or accept the responsibility to actively participate in other women’s career development. That shouldn’t be surprising. Just as not all women think alike, they don’t all act alike either. Just look at election results, for example. We know that women don’t vote as a block and they don’t act the same at work.
There are many reasons why some women don’t offer the developmental support that mentoring provides. They may be closed to it because they aren’t natural givers or don’t have relational savvy. They may not have the bandwidth to take it on, and not least of all, their understanding of how they see their role as women who’ve achieved a great deal in their career may not include opening the door wider for others to follow. And there’s much more to it still.
Some younger who look to senior women for the connection and learning and career benefits that a high-quality give and receive relationship offers expect to get support because they share the same gender. But that isn’t how all women see it. Some may have minimized the significance of being a woman in a company or industry where they have until recently been ‘an only’. Many feel scrutinized for being female and may take pride in their hard work “without anyone’s help”. If they are the only woman, racialized person, or individual with a disability, they may want to downplay their ‘only’ status. They’ve have gone out of their way not to view themselves through a gender lens. Instead, they worked hard to fit in, not stand out. I know of many cases where women insist on exceptional performance from everyone and drive very hard to get it. Women can sometimes hold both genders to a tougher line because they’ve had to hold themselves to an impossibly high standard to garner credibility and respect from others.
This may not make sense to you if you haven’t faced or witnessed discrimination early in your own career. But for those who have, they can find themselves distancing themselves from other women doing what they can to prove they made it in the workplace because of their performance, not because of any special treatment. Having their gender define a good deal of their identity is something they go to great lengths to avoid, not embrace. This is just one of the several ways gender bias can fuel conflict between generations of women.
Women are more likely to put their job before their career. This explains why some senior women show a disinterest in helping high-performing women who show promise. Senior women may neglect the importance of growing their networks and of building currencies of exchange with others who are junior.
Think too about the impact of those senior women who lacked having a mentor themselves. Or possibly for those who did have mentors or sponsors, it’s likely it was an older male supporter because there weren’t many women at the top. They didn’t have the experience of receiving a woman’s mentoring on the unique challenges faced by their common gender.
We need to also look at the greater context of work today to understand why some women don’t want to mentor.
Women persistently find themselves on an uneven playing field. There are so few women in the C-Suite and on boards, that scarcity can often place a chill on woman-to-woman dynamics. Without the reliability of equal pay for equal work, and far fewer opportunities to reach senior leadership levels, the workplace dynamic can set women up to compete with one another.
At the same time that women are frustrated that the salary gap hasn’t closed and we’re living with many examples of poor workplace practices related to sexual harassment, things are changing for the better too. We can’t overlook that there have always been women who support one another. Today, there are far more conversations about how to close the gaps of inequity at work sparked by the #Metoo movement. There are many more diversity and inclusion indexes and many more mentoring programs in the workplace. Women in male-led industries are organizing events where women are given a platform to speak on issues that affect women at work.
Women supporting other women is powerful. There are legacy reasons why it doesn’t happen everywhere and consistently across industries. Nevertheless, when women raise each other up there’s reason to be hopeful. Long may this continue.
A revised version of this article appeared on Forbes.com. Thank you to @mrsunflower94 for the photo portrait.