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The Power of Elevating Other Women

Written by: Sophie Warwick

I was recently asked in a panel discussion, “why can it sometimes be hard for women to support other women?” The question brought me back to a presentation I made about 8 years ago on improving gender diversity in the engineering sector. An attendee raised their hand and shared that they believed the greatest barrier to women exceling in the workplace was other women. In her experience, she shared that she’d had many fantastic men as leaders but had felt challenged by women leaders.

This response made me feel incredibly sad. I can’t speak to her experience, but I personally have felt extremely supported and empowered by the women who have mentored and championed my career. In fact, I don’t believe I would have had the courage to start The Thoughtful Co. without a very long list of women who have nurtured me along the way.

However, I don’t think her experience is entirely unique, or at least the perception that it can be harder for women to support other women. What I would challenge though, is the belief that women are choosing not to support each other. I believe instead that the crux of the problem is that the system is failing women and making it impossible to support each other effectively.

Playing Musical Chairs

Being a woman in a male-dominated industry or a woman striving for senior leadership, is challenging. It can feel like you’re playing musical chairs but when the music stops, you’re not allowed to sit in just any chair. You must sit in a pink chair. But unfortunately, there’s only one or two pink chairs in a sea of blue chairs. So, can we really blame women if they feel conflicted supporting their women peers in getting a seat on the coveted pink chair, if it means they won’t get a seat themselves? It’s an impossible position to be in.

I have experienced this firsthand in my engineering career. I worked closely with one of my greatest mentors and sponsors for many years. She was relatively close in level, but a little more senior in her career. We were the only women at that level, but there were many men to compete with. What surprised me in my performance reviews was that I was never compared to my men counterparts. I was only compared to her. With what I know now developing inclusive workspaces, I’d argue I shouldn’t have been compared to anyone directly during my performance review. However, at the very least I wanted to be compared with everyone. There were constant comments about how my expertise and strengths compared to hers. How could I differentiate myself from her?

Unfortunately, there was a deep seeded perception that there could only be one senior woman. Who was stronger between the two of us? There was only one pink chair, and we each needed to prove why we deserved it more.

The System, Not Us

We have continued to maintain a highly supportive relationship and I’m so grateful for all of her coaching and guidance. But I always wonder, if we hadn’t been able to talk about it openly, or if I had stayed long-term, would it have damaged our relationship as two ambitious women trying to elevate our careers? Would we really be to blame for that fallout, or is it the system that would have failed us? I acknowledge it can be hard for women to support other women. However, I feel very strongly that it is not the fault of women. We are ambitious, driven humans who are trying to carve out space at a table that wasn’t designed to accommodate us. The ownership is on organizations to build more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces that empower individuals of all genders to excel. When there are equitable opportunities to reach senior positions, women will be empowered to support other women because it will no longer be at their own expense.


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