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When women don’t support other women in business

I was chatting the other day with a woman I really admire when she asked me: “why don’t businesswomen just support each other more, like the blokes do?”

Now I’m walking on eggshells a bit, because I know this is a very subjective question.  In fact I’m probably playing with fire even raising the topic.  But since I get a question or feedback along these lines at least once a month, I reckon I can risk putting a few ideas out there.

Firstly, is it true that businesswomen don’t support one another?  In raw numbers, I’m sure that more men recommend men than women recommend women.  But let’s look at the whole premise of referrals: generally we’d all be happy to refer someone that we know, like and trust in business.  Sometimes that’s going to be a woman and sometimes it will be a man.  And let’s face it: by the laws of probability, the more senior or specialist you become in your field the less likely you are to recommend a female peer.  Why?  It’s simply a numbers game: when only 1 in 10 top jobs are held by women, chances are if you’re a senior woman in business you’ll be surrounded by male peers, clients and contacts.  That means these same men will be the ones front of mind when someone asks you the name of a good lawyer/accountant/consultant etc.  So in order to recommend a woman, we have to work a little bit harder to find them and remember them in the first place – there’s so few women in senior roles that recommending a female isn’t always the obvious choice.

Then there’s the argument that women compete with one another.  Or in some extreme cases, women sabotage the careers of other women.  Sadly, I’ve seen this in action.  Just last week a good friend relayed a story about a woman at her company who’s been slandering her for no apparent reason.  If you’ve ever been on the receiving end, you’ll believe me when I say this is quite an upsetting scenario.  So what makes someone do this?  Well who knows?  But what I do know for sure is that the happy, contented and optimistic people I know – male and female – don’t have a need to talk down other people.  They’re too busy getting on with all the good things in their life.  So I can only assume this woman is either unhappy, having personal difficulties or feels an extreme need to be the centre of attention – even if only for being obviously unsupportive of other people around her.  But on that note, I’ve seen plenty of men exhibit similar traits in my lifetime (and I’m sure you have too!)  So perhaps again its more of a numbers game – women in business stand out more for the good and the bad things they do.

Finally, we all know that the squeaky wheel gets oiled… so how would you say you compare to the men in your world in terms of asking for support and calling in favors?  Think about it – men will put on their “boy goggles” and ask you “if you’ve seen” that item they were the last to use (read: “can you find it for me because I can’t be bothered looking?)… And nine times out of ten we’ll drop what we’re doing without so much as a thought to locate it!  Women on the other hand either don’t think to ask for help (maybe we’re just used to doing it all) or don’t want to ask for help in case someone thinks we’re not perfect or perhaps we feel guilty about asking.  The latter is the biggest mystery to me: the women I work with are constantly giving of themselves – they have well and truly built up the Brownie points to ask a favour in return, yet seldom do.  So if we’re not asking for support and we don’t want to be seen to need help, then should we be surprised if none is forthcoming?

Of course I could have it all wrong.  Maybe women are out to get one another.  Maybe we’d all rather see business dominated by men and we really do go out of our way to make sure the blokes get all the good deals.  Or maybe we’re just not giving enough thought to how we can support one another – in which case isn’t it time we did?

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