There’s room at the top for all of us

Mindy Kaling must have been looking over my shoulder when she wrote her Dartmouth commencement speech.

‘Hey girls, we need to do a better job of supporting each other. I know that I am guilty of it too. We live in a world where it seems like there’s only room for one of us at the table. So when another woman shows up, we think, “Oh my god, she’s going to take the one woman spot! That was supposed to be mine!”

But that’s just what certain people want us to do! Wouldn’t it be better if we worked together to dismantle a system that makes us feel like there’s limited room for us? Because when women work together, we can accomplish anything.’

The myth that there’s only room at the top for ONE woman has been highly perpetrated over the years — think of all the rivalries

  • Beyoncé v Rihanna
  • Cardi B v Nicki Minage
  • Mary J v Faith Evans
  • Lil Kim v Foxy Brown
  • Joan Crawford v Bette Davis (Google it )
  • Margot Robbie v Tonya Harding
  • Whitney Houston v Mariah Carey

TV continues to push the message that successful women can’t get along, The whole Real Housewives franchise is based on this premise, plus countless others all pushing the catfights, warring women, bitchy, gossip hounds and mean girl cliques. The unfortunate point is that the attitude portrayed and encouraged by the media for ratings is incredibly damaging for those of us who do work in the real world and not reality tv. This translates into the workplace as an assertive woman being labeled “bossy” or a “ball buster”, women who disagree amongst themselves classed as being in a catfight, our often valid concerns dismissed as over reactions or trivial jealousies. All very damaging and invalid, women are no more likely to fight in the workplace than a man, our decision making isn’t flawed because we don’t have a dangling appendage!

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all media’s fault, we as women have a part to play especially if we’ve already made it to the top;

  • We fought hard to get to where we are and probably even harder to remain at the top — nobody helped us get there and we sure as dammit won’t let any young and upwardly mobile upstart take our spot without a fight!
  • On the same front we expect women to help us just because they are a woman. We expect that should be prepared to sacrifice opportunities and success to let another woman get a foot on the ladder, not because the woman earned it.
  • An insecure woman, one who isn’t secure in who she is and what she can offer and deliver in business or life, will inevitably feel that every other woman is a potential threat to her ultimate success and make sure another woman doesn’t even see the ladder let alone get her foot on it.

You don’t see these portrayals amongst men. Who’s the best yes, but not that only one man can rule at a time, so why is it so prevalent for women and how can we push those negative stereotypes aside?

“Recognise that your female colleague is your best asset and ally. We should be supporting each, not tearing each other down.”

Stop the popularity contest — Women face a double bind standard that men don’t. Men are expected to be assertive and confident, and are seen as leaders, whereas, women are expected to be nurturing and collaborative. When we are assertive and lead we can be deemed unlikable as that’s not how a woman is supposed to act. So we often face pushback from men and women described “pushy” “ambitious” or my favourite “over-confident” as opposed to a man being ”forthright” and “strong.”

When you hear a woman being called “bossy” or “a nag,” ask for a specific example of what the woman did and then ask, “Would you have the same reaction if a man did the same thing?” Most times, the answer will be no. When you’re having a negative response to a woman at work, ask yourself the same question and give her the benefit of the doubt. Chances are she’s just doing her job.

Bring them with you — If you’ve been fortunate to move up the ladder, look at the pool of women in your network and see who could complement you on this opportunity — and also help advance their career. When I started in my role as Team Leader in a call centre, I contacted all the best performers in my previous company to see if the wanted to work with me. Luckily they did! This enabled them to get a better role with improved salary and prospects, plus I built a loyal team that surpassed targets each week, in turn making me look good.

Surround yourself with the best and utilize them! — Your colleagues are an asset to you — but you have to let them be. You have to be willing to step back when they know better than you do; you have to be ready to ask for help and dismiss the idea it makes you look weak. In my opinion the strength is in asking for support; you have the confidence to step forward and acknowledge what you don’t know. The old adage there’s no “I” in team is never truer — there’s no way I could do all the roles required in my business and I certainly wasn’t an expert in all things. There was no shame in my game in asking for support, these women are in a role for a reason and it would be foolish not to utilize their expertise.

Identify excellence in others — Women are often given less credit for a job well done and are more likely to be singled out for failure. But we also respond in different ways — women will put success down to external factors such as “good luck” and “help from the team,” while men will beat their chest and claim the victory as theirs and it’s all down to their skills and abilities. Men own success, women undermine theirs and if we do celebrate our success we seen as braggadocios or big headed or self promoting.

If you see a job well done by a woman, acknowledge it, if you see a woman being unfairly treated for a mistake point it out. Even better, take time to celebrate one another’s successes whenever possible, there’s nothing to stop us uplifting our colleagues for a job well done. If you have the opportunity to introduce a female colleague, highlight their credentials and accomplishments — for example, “Trina was in charge of our new sales team and they’ve have the best performance all year”. I know I’ve been guilty in getting so caught up in my day job that sometimes I’d forget to acknowledge a job well done, so I made it a point in identifying at least one positive I could highlight in team briefings.

Encourage women to go for it — We all know that as women, we suffer from self-doubt and the need for perfection. We have to have 100% of everything before we make a move, whilst a man only needs to know he has 60% of the criteria before making his move. We also know that unfortunately it’s still a man’s world and we have to work extra hard to prove our capabilities, it doesn’t help when we undermine our own performance and ability further eroding our confidence.

So if you see an opportunity you know your colleague is a shoe in for, boost her confidence and encourage her to go for it, throw her hat in the ring. If she says she’s not ready for a new project or role, remind her of how far she has come, what she’s already accomplished and offer to be a sounding board whilst she gets up to speed. Recognizing excellence in other women and in yourself is the task and the strength of supporting women.

Be flattered not threatened — If you hear word that someone’s coming for your job, you really shouldn’t be worried — you know what you did to get there and you know what to do to remain — no need to be insecure in your abilities. On the contrary, give the individual some insight into your world — we all know it’s easier to do the job with your feet on the couch than walking a mile in your heels. Personally, I’ve never been threatened by this situation I see it as a great opportunity to impart my knowledge, after all I already have my eyes focused on the next prize.

Give women direct feedback — Don’t just praise, look for opportunities to give the women you work with input that can help them learn and grow. Holding back for fear you’ll upset someone doesn’t benefit her, it should be constructive, relevant and whenever possible, live and in the moment to be most effective. If you are on the receiving end you should treat feedback as a gift and solicit it often — you’ll benefit from the input.

Be your own fabulous self — Lead by example and be your own authentic, fabulous, self! If you’re waffling about whether to speak up in a meeting, just say some something. If you’re not sure if you should wear that insane outfit you bought, just wear it. Every time you show your opinion or your personal style confidently, you signal to other women that it’s okay to be themselves. We women are all diverse and unique. Everyone will have different skills and bring different flavors to the table — there shouldn’t be one template that all women in the workplace are shooting to achieve, then we’d all beige and boring!

I was always concerned about retaining my authenticity when I became a CEO. My predecessors had all been “pale, male and stale” so to have an opinionated black woman step up to the plate was out of the norm. I had resisted taking the role as I thought I had to emulate my predecessors when in reality a fresh outlook was required. The business needed to hear what hadn’t been said — (a key skill set of mine, just ask my husband!) and I was able to unleash 100% Janice on them. By being this open, others felt inclined to share the real issues which we were able to address.

Ensure women are heard — Next time you’re in a meeting, look at the seating placements. Most men will sit at the front or middle whilst women tend to take less powerful positions such as the end of the table and it can often be a situation of who talks loudest often gets heard — normally a male!

Start sitting front-and-centre and speaking up in meetings, encourage other women to do the same. If a woman is interrupted, interject and say you’d like to hear her finish. When a coworker runs away with a woman’s idea, remind everyone who’s idea it was by saying, “Great idea . . . thanks to Trina for suggesting it.” Proactively seek ways to hear the opinions of others such as going around the room soliciting feedback, points raised by other women. When you advocate for your female colleagues, they benefit — and you’re also seen as a leader plus meetings are far more effective when everyone’s point is heard

Blowing out someone else’s candle doesn’t make yours shine any brighter. By not competing, learning to control our reactions and pushing back against prejudice, everyone stands to benefit. Strong women stand together when things are rough, hold each other up when they need support and laugh together when there’s no reason to. Be that woman! There’s room at the top for all of us!

Janice Sutherland is an award winning women’s leadership expert and founder of This Woman Can an online community for professional women. She provides coaching and training specializing in helping women and organizations build leadership skills through Executive Mentorship, Leadership Training and Executive Team Facilitation for both corporate executives and entrepreneurs globally. She is a sought after keynote presenter for corporate and nonprofit environments and speaks on issues relating to leadership, women’s advancement, professional success and work/life alignment. For more details, visit www.janicesutherland.com

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