It was nearly 30 years ago, but I remember it like yesterday. I was in my first job, as a lowly researcher on a prestigious BBC news program. It wasn’t really the right job for me — I was still trying to figure out what that was — but I was hard-working and eager to learn. I could do the work easily and, in my spare time, was teaching myself how to edit soundtracks.
Catching me at this one day, my boss rather huffily said to me, “Since you don’t have any work to do, go get my dry cleaning.” She pushed the cleaning ticket toward me and I left the office, steaming. I have been steaming ever since.
I’m appalled, of course, that she didn’t see that it was more valuable for me to develop my skills than to pick up her clothes. And I’m appalled by her rudeness. But what really gets to me after all these years is that she was a she. How could she not, as sisters should, support and encourage me? Why, instead, humiliate and demean me?
Whenever I address women’s groups about careers, sooner or later the same bewildered question arises: If women are so great, how come my worst boss was female? The answer isn’t simple. Some of it is history — for centuries, girls have been brought up to compete against each other for the attention of men. Think of Jane Austen. Think of Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Wilkes fighting over Ashley. Think of Fatal Attraction.
When we went to work, much of this behavior repeated itself. But another phenomenon emerged, just as ugly: the Queen Bee. Really successful women often found themselves alone at the top table — and a lot of us liked it that way. We liked being special and memorable. We liked feeling, for once, that we’d evaded the competition. And so we did to each other what my boss did to me: We failed to encourage one another. We didn’t use our new power to help each other but to consolidate our own position. We hired and promoted men because they weren’t a threat and proved we weren’t discriminatory. We were exclusive and we kept it that way. Having climbed the ladder, we pulled it up swiftly behind us.
I know I did this. I know that there was nothing in my background that had taught me to view women as anything except competition. And I know, looking back, that this hurt me. Because being alone — especially at the top — is a bad place to be in business. You need allies. You need networks to remind you who you are — and to protect you when you are in trouble. Why didn’t any of her girlfriends warn Carly Fiorina that when your board members leak against you to The Wall Street Journal, it’s time to cut a deal?
What changed my career was being given the opportunity (which I would never have asked for) to work with two smart women. We were sent around the country, disentangling deals put together by various rogue executives. It should have been a grisly assignment — cancelling contracts, apologizing endlessly, lowering expectations. And that part wasn’t fun. But working with a smart lawyer and a witty accountant brought me one of the greatest learning experiences of my career. And it taught me how much more I could do — and how much more fun I could have — when women worked together.
I’d love to think that what I’m writing now is really a history lesson, but it isn’t. Just last month, Lucy Kellaway, a fantastic columnist in the Financial Times, confessed how much she’d hate it if another wonderful columnist joined her paper. I admire her candor — but I can’t condone the attitude. One very good reason why men have the power and influence they have is because they know how to help each other and they don’t take competition personally. We still have a long way to go before we can say the same about ourselves.
The rise of women’s networks is cause for optimism. They make us smarter; they provide a lot of support, ideas, and wisdom. I joined one just the other day. It’s a network of so-called “women gurus” — women who write and speak authoritatively on business issues. Yes, the name does make me shudder, but the idea doesn’t. Beverly Kaye, my fellow columnist, is one of them. So too is Sally Helgesen who wrote the groundbreaking book, The Female Advantage. We all have very different expertise and experience. We don’t all agree about everything. But we do want to position women’s voices in business to be heard better and more often. And we think we’re more likely to do that together than separately.
Change comes about slowly. When I was first asked to join, at first my brain seized up and I had one of the old thoughts: What? Help my competitors? And then I had one of my new thoughts: Gee, it would be fun to work together. After all, isn’t that how you make things happen?
Of course, helping each other has to be serious. Gail Evans (another female guru) tells a great story about seeing a young woman ridiculed by her colleagues because of her dress sense. Gail could have joined in; she could have ignored it. Instead, she took the girl aside and explained the problem. It must have been a hard conversation to have – but it was the only way to help. If she’d done anything else, she’d have colluded in the girl’s humiliation. Jane Austen’s characters would have delighted in such character assassination. We owe it to ourselves not to.
When we recognize that one woman’s success is everyone’s success, when we learn to share the rewards of our success and to groom a generation of female leaders that does so naturally, that is when we will finally and irrevocably move out of the ballroom and into the boardroom. We know it makes sense, but old habits die hard. And not nearly fast enough.