I am always inspired by the panel of leaders at the Women in Leadership conference held on the TCU campus each year. If you have the chance to go, I would encourage you to do so. The panel this year was particularly professional, informative and transparent. One point that was made particularly captured my attention. One of the panelists made the point that women in business do not build relationship and men do.
It is a remarkable comment. The ability of women to build relationships is legendary. Our relationships with our girlfriends are life sustaining for most of us. We share minutiae and our innermost secrets. We care, cajole, console and connect. We share our hurts, our hearts and our headaches. We spend time and we go shopping. We even go to the washroom in groups. So why on earth when we get into the work place do we avoid each other? I have seen this phenomenon many times, but it really did not strike me as the dichotomy that it is until it was called out at the symposium.
Men build relationships, too. Their relationships are usually characterized as more about shared activities rather than shared feelings. Team or even individual sports are often a strong theme in their relationships. The joke going around is that Susan, Marsha and Cindy go to lunch and call each other Susan, Marsha and Cindy. Tom, Sam and Jason go to lunch and call each other Caveman, Big Boy and Ugly. That same kind of banter and camaraderie goes from the ball field and golf course directly into the boardroom. It provides access to access. It provides information on tips, tricks and training. So I ask again, why on earth do women gets into the work place and avoid each other or, worse yet work against each other?
I am sure the first explanation will be that there are just not enough of us in the boardroom. That is a fair comment. However, this alliance formation happens well before the opportunity to get into the boardroom comes. I heard another speaker in the last year – the CEO of a prominent financial firm. He talked about being in a “class” with the people who come into the workforce at the same time that you do. It is not necessarily your school class, but it operates in a similar way. You form your group of “classmates” who will be with you for life. You aid and support each other in good times and bad. This man is highly successful, and he is well known for helping young people make progress in their careers. The point is that this alliance is formed early in our careers when there are plenty of women in the entry ranks. The university business school graduating classes are 60% women.
In my observation, this “class” formation, almost never happens with women in the workplace. Instead of working together, we work against each other. We call each other mean girls. We suspect each other of “cheating” and sabotage. Most of the problem is jealousy and the suspicion is unwarranted. We need to get over ourselves. We have to stop calling each other names. We need to quit worrying about the “Old Boy Network” and start building the “Old Girl Network”. We need to invest as much in our women work relationships as we do in our girlfriends – time and trust. We need to not be embarrassed about it. We need to not allow the men to set us up against each other. I am not trying to set up a men versus women dynamic. I am just suggesting that it is imperative for women to allow their natural relationship building to express itself in the work world. Let’s give it go.