We’ve all heard the narrative about senior women who don’t support the women below them. (Of course, what we hear less about are the battles those senior women fought and the toll they have taken.) We know about the “mansplainers,” the low-key harassers and the “underminers” young women face at work.
Some women might object to the premise of this article. They might say they identify as an individual or their employer doesn’t see gender. They might say they’ve never experienced sexism. Well, that’s only true until it isn’t.
More than having a system in place for when things go bad—like ‘filing with HR and hiring a lawyer’ bad—women’s networks also know things, such as how best to navigate your workplace as a woman. For example, how have people at your office dealt with maternity leave? Are there male colleagues who are not safe to work with one-on-one? Are there clients who will have trouble hearing a woman’s expertise when she pitches an idea? What are the best ways to manage these issues, among others?
Happily, today’s professional women are part of a significant demographic group, significant enough that a body of advice exists to help them navigate the sometimes-unfriendly world of office politics. And while some of that advice differs based on the career level of the individual—how to negotiate as a woman, how to dress, etc.—if women really wish to change workplace culture, they need to support each other along the way, no matter their position.
Tips for women supporting women at work
So, what’s an ambitious young woman who wants to support her peers to do?
1. Network up, down and sideways.
It can be easy to focus networking efforts on those in positions above you. After all, aren’t these the people who can provide you with the most tools and resources? However, there are two big problems with this. First, many of the top positions in the workplace are still held by men. While it’s important to be collegial and friendly with the men in your office, it’s just as important to start developing a network of other women.
Second, if we are moving toward a more progressive world, the women at and below your level in the workplace will be the future of your organization someday. It is in your own best interest for them to flourish and to develop camaraderie with them. If women are doing well in general, it boosts the likelihood of you doing well. You could even make your commitment to supporting other women’s careers explicit, forming what author Jessica Bennett calls a Feminist Fight Club. It’s a group of women that gathers to talk strategies for career advancement and fighting workplace sexism.
2. Draw attention to the domestic work of the office.
Who gets coffee and orders sandwiches? Which employee organizes birthday cards and cakes? Who gathers money for gifts? These tasks are all labor. But it’s labor that’s not likely to earn a bonus or a promotion for the person undertaking them. As a Harvard Business Review article describes them, these tasks constitute “office housework,” and women tend to both volunteer more for these tasks and receive more pressure to do so. The solution to the problem? Take the volunteering out of it and make it a matter of turn-taking. If you can implement a system for assigning these tasks on a rotating basis, generations of women that follow will be forever grateful.
3. Women supporting women don’t fall into the gossip trap.
Humans love gossip. It’s part of how we bond—creating an inside group that’s momentarily pitted against an outsider. If you are a woman in a predominantly male office, it can feel like a good idea to engage in this kind of gossip about other women with the men of the office. It can make you feel like you are “one of the guys.”
And while it’s true that women are capable of being jerks, be on the lookout for coded language like “difficult,” “drama queen,” “emotional,” “demanding,” etc. that might suggest that something else is going on. If the young men you work with keep dragging a senior woman, for example, you might worry about what that means about their prejudice against women in leadership roles. Perhaps you should seek out her friendship instead.
4. Signal boosting.
Sit in on workplace meetings long enough, and you’ll see variations on a pervasive phenomenon unfold. A woman will start explaining something and a man will start talking over her before she’s finished her point. Or, more insidiously, she will make a point or proposal, it will be glossed over, and 10 minutes later a man will make the same proposal—which is then taken up. This creates frustration, to be sure, but also the more damaging tendency for men to get credit for women’s work.
Thankfully, we have a model for combatting this. In 2016, The Washington Post reported on a strategy used by female staffers during the Obama administration. Even in the White House, the culture of meetings remained unfriendly to women. Women responded by developing the following strategy to support other women: “When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution—and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.”
5. Women supporting women at work build each other up.
As your career develops, you’ll have the opportunity to help build up the women who are coming up behind you. Unfortunately, people can still have implicit biases against members of their own identity group. As you move into rooms where decisions are made, be careful of selecting only people who “look the part.” You might even consider making it part of your practice to seek out new women in your firm to take to lunch on a weekly basis. That way, their names and projects are more top of mind when it comes time to put people forward for special opportunities or awards.
Whether for good or ill, cultures tend to replicate themselves. Changing the culture with and for the women around you can make your workplace one in which women thrive, rather than just survive.
This article was published in March 2020 and has been updated. Photo by PeopleImages.com – Yuri A/Shutterstock
Katherine Fusco is an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she teaches film, theory, and American literature. She is the author of Silent Film and U.S. Naturalist Literature: Time, Narrative and Modernity (Routledge) and Kelly Reichardt (University of Illinois). Currently, Katherine is working on a book about stardom and questions of identity in the 1920s and 1930s. Katherine has appeared in The Atlantic, Dilettante Army, Harpers Bazaar, Headspace, OZY and Salmagundi; you can find her blog on motherhood and creativity at CreateLikeAMother.blog.