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What does "women supporting women" actually mean?

Last year a female colleague and I had a disagreement. We’re both reasonable people, so there was no daytime talk show style explosion. Still, egos chafed and we shared a spicy exchange. Ultimately, we agreed to disagree.

Conflict might usually be a bit of a dirty word, but it doesn’t need to be. Especially when it comes to allyship, there’s a misconception that to ally with another, we must agree with them. Not only is this unrealistic, it’s extremely conditional. If I’m only going to support other women I agree with on every tiny little thing… well, I should probably get a bigger mirror because no two people agree on everything all the time. Nor should we. Dynamic tension is the birthplace of progress.

Still, we hear about supporting women without much discussion on what that looks like, particularly in the moments of tension. Listen, I use hashtags like #womensupportingwomen and #womenleaders proudly and I’m not suggesting you stop either. But we do need to go beyond policies on paper and quick tips.

Still, let’s start there. Policies on paper, you say? Quick tips?

Category one: for companies and orgs of any sort

>> creating active inclusion and belonging through company culture — not settling for headcount as an indicator that a company is a healthy place for women to work

>> actively nurturing women for promotions, leadership roles, and professional advancement

>> transparency about pay and benefits

>> offering generous parental leave, nursing stations, reproductive health benefits

>> giving joyous and very public kudos… even when the woman is in a support role by title. If she did it, she did it, even when she’s called (and compensated as) an assistant

Category two: for individuals

>> actively referring jobs, business, and clients to your women colleagues

>> giving joyous and very public kudos… sharing and recommending work, celebrating accomplishments, nominating for awards or accolades

>> verbally seconding or having someone’s back in a meeting, online, or in media

These are crucial steps. Please celebrate any you already do and get excited to learn about whatever is new to you.

But what happens when women disagree? It could be political perhaps — a pro-life and a pro-choice debate, for example. But those are a little obvious. The thing about women really being integrated into the office or into larger cultural leadership is that it’s not a simplistic equation. We’re all radically different and even those of us who more or less agree politically and want to lift each other up have nuanced disagreements. Because we’re humans, after all.

So as we discuss female leadership and integrating women into board rooms and the C-suite, our prior discussions on parental leave and promotion — while utterly important — might not keep up to pace. Steve Jobs and Steve Wazniac weren’t squabbling over a client referral. They were fundamentally at odds with whose DNA their baby would receive.

You might’ve heard of queen bee syndrome, or the idea that a woman demands other women in her office “follow” her unwaveringly. In some ways the phenomenon is similar. Whose DNA or fingerprint or mojo is going to permeate the company? The very question implies a monarchy, where there’s only room for one.

What if we knew in our bones there’s ample room and more than enough wealth to go around? And not just go around, but more than we here at the table need?… And not just accommodate us, but plenty to invite others to the table as well?…

Leadership comes in part from the ability to see behind, through, and around, to not just absorb the status quo about power but to expand and share power.

A podcast with my colleagues at Uma and Nevelab began this conversation last week, and we’ll be going deep on it soon. Stay tuned!

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