You’ve made it to the top. You’ve paid your dues, put in the time and suffered the disappointments and frustrations that come with climbing the career ladder as a woman. And it has finally paid off.
Your peers recognize you as a role model; your family and friends applaud you for being a savvy and smart businesswoman. You are a recognized SUCCESS.
Reflect for a moment on how you came to be in this position. Of course, you worked your butt off and made the kinds of personal sacrifices that high-achieving women still have to make to get to the top. But, if you’re really honest with yourself, you know that you didn’t make it on your own…you had some help along the way.
Whether it came formally through a mentor or sponsor providing guidance and advocating for you when promotions and key assignments were handed out, or informally from a colleague in a more senior position or at another organization helping you navigate professional landmines or internal politics, you probably had help and support.
Now, you’re in a position to help other women trying to climb the career ladder. What will you do for them? If you think “not much,” you’re not alone. Research shows that many successful women – maybe even most – pull up the ladder after they break through the glass ceiling. Maybe that’s why, while the percentage of women in the workforce has grown tremendously over the last decade, their representation in the c-suite and boardroom hasn’t kept pace…not even close.
A major reason, according to a number of studies, is women’s reluctance to help other women.
The stories of senior women who don’t help other women advance or, worse, kick the ladder out from under more junior women are unfortunately numerous. Is it that the higher up a woman gets, the more concerned she becomes about competition for fewer high-level positions, or is it insecurity, not believing that she earned or deserves her status?
Some women have told me they did not support other women because they intuitively knew there were only one or two seats at the leadership table for people outside of the boy’s club. Why? Because there have always been only one or two seats at the table for people outside of the boy’s club. So why help someone else who could potentially take your seat?
And if you think women owned business have it any easier, I can tell you from personal experience, they don’t. Even running a business that is exclusively for women has come with its own set of challenges; you guessed it, from women.
Women decision-makers have often been my toughest critics. That was true when I was a company executive, and now running my own company. Women doing business with other women seem to become obstacles no matter who you are. Men seem to be able to mix business and personal relationships effortlessly, and yet we women manage to compartmentalize the two worlds and get frustrated when the two worlds overlap.
So, how can we help those women coming up the ranks?
Just as I advise my clients who aspire to c-suites and boardrooms to seek out mentors and sponsors, I also advise my clients already inhabiting those offices to look over their shoulders at the women who represent the future; not with trepidation, but with the intent of helping them succeed.
Since we still operate in a male-designed workplace, there is an underlying philosophy that 24/7 dedication to the job is a must for anyone on a course to the corner office. That thinking – still prominent – puts added pressure on women who are trying to juggle a career, household responsibilities, community volunteering and maybe even additional education. (As an aside, I recognize that men have come a long way in supporting spouses and other women in their lives and now share household responsibilities and parenting…but women still have the lion’s share of them).
Until the current workplace culture changes, senior women can support the needs of their female peers and junior colleagues by encouraging them to speak out for what they need and to advocate for organizational changes that recognize the perspectives and value women executives bring to an organization
Recognize that success isn’t a zero-sum game. Because a female colleague is successful and gaining recognition as a rising star doesn’t mean that your star is fading. Support your colleague by becoming a mentor, not a competitor. Recognize that her success is also your success. When one woman rises, we all rise.
Mentoring is helpful but sponsorship provides tangible rewards. If there is a woman you recognize as a rising star, step up and become her sponsor and put her name up when a major project is on the table.
Educating other senior-level executives (most of whom are still male) is a very important action that can go a long way toward supporting women on the way up. Advocate for policies and procedures that benefit women by using your position to explain the unique challenges women executives face. Mentor other women to help them make it through the obstacles, and educate men to advocate for their female colleagues.
But, whatever help we get from our senior-level male colleagues, executive-level women should never forget that it’s up to us to lead the charge.
As Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, is fond of saying: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”