As part of our series celebrating women leaders to mark International Women’s Day, financier and campaigner Dame Helena Morrissey, tackles the subject of women supporting other women.
If you’re a woman, I’m guessing you’ve been there. That you’ve been dealt the crushing blow of having your bright idea shot down (or stolen!)…by another woman. Or that you’ve felt over-worked, under-appreciated or held back…by another woman. It’s certainly happened to me, several times, including when I launched the 30% Club a decade ago. Several of the UK’s top businesswomen declined to help, on the basis that ‘no one ever helped me’. (I always countered, ‘Wouldn’t you have preferred it if they had?’) There was one woman who started – and ended – every meeting with ‘Tell me how I can help YOU?’ who turned out to be consistently briefing against me. We can’t expect every woman to support us just because we are a woman, but it’s hard not to feel especially disappointed by such unsisterly behaviour.
But just lately I’ve seen plenty of evidence that women are collaborating more than competing. That as our career opportunities increase, there’s a growing realisation that we stand to benefit from each other’s success. As The Female Lead, a wonderful book pulling together the stories of different inspiring women puts it, together we can rise.
So those early disappointing conversations with female leaders about the 30% Club have now been replaced by a powerful global network of women (along with male allies) working hard for the next generation. The club’s cross-company mentoring scheme – now the largest in the world – is a great example. This year’s 1,000 or so mentors are roughly equal numbers of senior women and men, all giving their time and expertise to mentor a mid-career woman they have never met before. The rise in the numbers of female executives (across the FTSE350, nearly 30% of executive committees and ‘one level below’ roles are now held by women) has swelled the pool of possible mentors – and they are seizing the opportunity to help someone coming along behind them.
A relatively recent venture of my own has really convinced me that such generosity is now the norm, making it hugely powerful. Three months ago, I started posting daily ‘career dressing tips’ on Instagram, in the hope that this might help women who often ask me how to dress ‘authentically yet appropriately’ for work. An amazing community of women has emerged, offering suggestions, commenting supportively and asking questions of each other – not just me. The posts have turned out to be mere prompts for some lovely conversations.
On a grander scale, the very public victory for the #MeToo campaign in Harvey Weinstein’s conviction shows how much we can achieve by reaching out to each other. The #MeToo movement began twenty years before Hollywood actresses got involved, but it took the combination of the stars’ influence and the power of social media for it to dramatically shift gears. In the first 24 hours after actress Alyssa Milano tweeted ‘If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me Too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem’, 4.7 million engaged on Facebook alone. Together, they called ‘time’s up’ on behaviours that had persisted for decades.
Each of us can take steps to support other women. It needn’t be on such a dramatic scale; ‘everyday sisterliness’ can make a big impact. Little acts of kindness, watching each other’s backs, offering advice over a coffee, deciding to be a woman who looks out for other women. If you witness a colleague being harassed or bullied in the office, don’t be a passive bystander – speak up. No one is too junior to lend support. I’ve learned that it’s incredibly empowering to help other women and then encourage them to ‘pay it forward’ too. Many of us are involved in gender equality campaigns; collaborating where we can, amplifying each other’s work rather than dividing and (not) conquering, celebrating each other’s success and calling out each other’s achievements will deliver far faster progress than any one on their own.
As we mark International Women’s Day 2020, let’s make a pact to lift each other up. Together we rise.