You’d hope, in this day and age, that the idea of women working together wouldn’t conjure up negative imagery. It would be wonderful to think that the concept of having a female boss was no more extraordinary than that of having a male one, yet even the briefest of searches on these topics has proven that this just isn’t the case.
When the term, "female boss" is typed into Google, the first page of results shows little variation on the same theme: that female bosses are difficult and must be "survived." A quick search of the term "male boss," however, shows a more neutral list of results; the question "do you prefer a male or female boss?" popping up several times within the first page. Healthy zone
I wish this surprised me more than it did but it seems—much like the old trope that Londoners are never more than six feet away from a rat—unfortunately, we are never more than one conversation away from a work story involving female rivalry.
There’s no denying that western civilisation has long held an appetite for the concept. From Queen Elizabeth I’s long-held feud with Mary, Queen of Scots to Beyonce and Rihanna’s alleged mutual hatred, the public never tires of a good old story about one woman fighting with another. Millions of us just spent the last two months watching Daenerys and Cersei tear each other apart in the last season of Game of Thrones. But, the truth is, I don’t really want to talk about that.
The idea that women who work together must be rivals is tedious—there’s room for all of us at the proverbial table (despite what statistics might indicate) and, as Sarah Stone, the co-founder of the Female Success Network, points out, the best way to feel empowered ourselves is to empower others:
Stand for something bigger than your own success. Be the kind of person that no matter where you are or what you’re working on, always add value to those around you so that you can all rise and shine together. Empowering others will naturally empower you.”
I collaborated with some of my female peers to create a list of tips on how to empower other women in the workplace. Here’s what we found:
1. Celebrate each others’ strengths
It’s not uncommon to only receive communication from a manager or peer when a task needs completing or criticism is being leveled—as a freelancer, I know this all too well. Instead of just communicating that which is actionable or negative, tell your female peers or team members when praise is deserved as well. Celebrate their strengths and accomplishments. There seems to be a widely held misconception that one should have grown out of the need for praise in adulthood, yet I’d hazard a guess that not a single person has found this to be true. Celebrating strengths not only helps combat imposter syndrome but also assists in retaining good employees—according to Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report, "lack of recognition" remains one of the most common reasons that people leave an organization. Help your fellow female colleagues get recognized for the things they are particularly skilled at and share their accomplishments far and wide.
2. Connect them to the right people
What’s that old saying about personal relationships? That you are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with? I think this is also true of professional relationships—the better-connected professionals are to others who can support and mentor them, the better they become themselves. Empower your female coworkers by introducing them to the people who can help them access the resources and knowledge they need to grow and improve—these are the people who will inspire them to keep going when they are faced with the sadly likely scenario of being undervalued, undermined or overlooked.
3. Back each other up in meetings
As this Atlantic article points out, success is as much about confidence as it is about competence—in fact, it’s often more so. It may seem to some that speaking up in a meeting isn’t a big deal—to assume that all women struggle with this is to assume that all women are differential—but when that meeting is dominated by men, for some women, it can be. If we use Deloitte’s 2017 Women in the Boardroom research as a yardstick, in a board meeting of 100 people, only 15 of these will be women. In a room of 10 that means not even 2 would be. If you’re "lucky enough" to be in a meeting where another woman is present, amplify each other—back each others’ opinions (or, if you don’t agree, at least respect them) and give them the space to speak openly.
4. Back less experienced women for projects
When new projects come up, if there’s a woman in your team who you think would lead it well, depending on your delegation power, either put her forward for it or suggest her. Men are regularly chosen for projects and roles based on their potential whereas women are still often chosen simply for their prior experience—give women the chance to prove themselves, even if they haven’t had that kind of experience before.
5. Be approachable and offer help
That female rivalry I was talking about at the beginning? It often stems from the fact that women have a subconscious (or sometimes conscious) belief that there are simply not enough opportunities to go round, so they will have to fight potential competitors for them. Certainly, some men suffer from this belief as well but it is something that plagues women more consistently. Hardly surprising when women held just 24% of senior roles across the world last year. The best way to combat this isn’t by undermining each other—it’s by helping each other. Offering mentorship or help of any kind to other women will go a long way to redressing this imbalance and help offer a "leadership pipeline" to those aspiring to more powerful positions.
6. Time spent working should be valued on quality over quantity
Now that we’re fully nestled into the 21st century, more and more employees have flexible working hours in one form or another (in 2017 it was found that 43% of all U.K. employees benefited from some sort of ‘agile’ working arrangement) yet despite this, many feel it’s still something of a taboo—it’s allowed but frowned upon.
Let’s be honest—sitting at a desk for eight predetermined hours each day is not an indicator of quality work or productivity yet it is often used as an indicator, as if companies think employees are naughty children and can’t be trusted to work well unsupervised.
Offering women flexible working arrangements is beneficial in so many ways. First of all, there’s the obvious: working mothers greatly benefit from this. Having the power to arrange their own hours allows them to effectively focus on work when they can give it their full attention. Secondly, everyone—not just mothers or working women—gain a great deal from this flexibility. It’s been shown to boost mental health, reduce staff turnover and increase productivity.
7. Be open about your own vulnerabilities and failings
If I had a pound for every time a female friend of mine had spoken excitedly about a woman they admired, only to follow it up with a statement along the lines of, “but I’ll never get there…” I’d be docking my super-yacht in St Tropez right about now. Why do women do this? Here’s my theory: there are so few successful women compared to men in the world (or their successes are simply not amplified in the same way) that we feel these women are "special" and "other" to us. We rationalize that to get to where they have, they must have had something extra – they are such a rarity that there must have been some sort of magic fairy dust or hocus pocus involved that the rest of us can’t access.
The more successful women who speak openly about the trials and tribulations that got them to where they are, the better. Admitting to past failures, setbacks and vulnerabilities does not then perpetuate more failure, setbacks or vulnerabilities. It paves the way for other women to have confidence that, just because someone told them off, they made a mistake or didn’t make a success of something first time around, it doesn’t mean they’ll be canceled from existence. Men have never needed the validation of perfection the way women have. Because the world still looks at women through a male lens, they’ve been brought up to believe that imperfection makes them irrelevant. This, of course, is ludicrous and the best way to help women get over such an idea is through leading by example.
8. Speak openly about salaries
Ah yes, the old gender pay gap chestnut. Openness around salaries is required to make real headway in the equal pay quest. There are plenty of companies out there that still actively discourage this under the guise that it’s "unprofessional" or "inappropriate." According to a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, in 2017 only 17% of private companies offered pay transparency and 25% actually explicitly expressed that it was forbidden. Let’s be honest here: the only real reason for this is that they do not offer fair pay structures.
Because it is still such a taboo subject, many women don’t feel confident enough to negotiate. In fact, in one of my previous full-time roles, a child-free colleague was told she was "lucky not to have more mouths to feed" when she asked for one. The only way to add the sense of normalcy to the conversation that many men feel is to actively discuss it. Even better, if you’ve achieved a successful salary negotiation, tell other women how you did it.
9. Set up measurable targets so achievements are tangible
As explained earlier, many women have to prove themselves more often than men. If you have women in your team, make it easy for them to do so—set measurable targets so that when they hit them, they have something concrete to show. KPIs can help clear up any ambiguity that might occur during discussions about promotion or pay and ensure that companies are held accountable when they don’t honor their own structures.
10. Accept and embrace individuality
Lastly, accept that not all women are the same. Yes, I know—this seems obvious. But we’ve all read enough about gender bias to know that there are certain qualities expected of women. Embrace the ways in which the women in your team are individual—don’t expect them to adhere to a stereotypical idea of femininity and don’t hold them back when they do.