The tyranny of women helping women

The tyranny of women helping women

When I first entered the working world, I was advised by many well-intentioned friends to beware of women bosses. Far from being held back by the old boys club, my mentors warned, I’d be more likely to fall victim to a highly successful woman who wanted to preserve the token woman’s spot for herself.

The advice was both true and not true. Yes, I had some women bosses who were insecure and vicious to any up-and-coming female who might eclipse them. And I also had some incredible women bosses who supported me in my career.

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In recent years, it has become gauche to discuss women holding women back, or warn fresh-faced account managers about the pitfalls of female bosses. Today the emphasis is on the importance of banding together as a gender to smash the glass ceiling.

I call this the “women helping women” movement. And of course, I support the cause, and have posted several of the ubiquitous “lift as you climb” memes to social media. I make introductions for my women clients and friends, connect women to opportunities as often as I can, and highlight powerful women leaders on my podcast.

I am a proud woman supporting women.

Most days it’s exhilarating. But some days, it’s exhausting. Why? Because the women supporting women’s movement continues to wax and wane on the most limited axis known to woman: TIME. Also known as the “Can I take you out for coffee” date. Also known as the “Can I pick your brain” session. While few women will admit outright that they lack the time, energy and sheer career bandwidth required to mentor, advise, drink coffee and “share their journeys” with the influx of women emboldened by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In to seek powerful mentors, many inwardly cringe when they get the requests.

That’s because these requests for time typically coincide with the very resource that most career women have least access to—hours in the day. Even in traditional two-partner, male/female households where evolved men pitch in around the house, women continue to do the lion’s share of time-sensitive housework. Children need to be fed at roughly the same time each day. Laundry can’t always wait for the weekends. Basketball practice ends at 5pm, so you better be there. Be there, be there, be there.

There isn’t much time for coffee dates and brain-pick sessions and share-your-journey deep dives. And yet, this is still what women are asking of their mentors and network. But in saying ‘no’ to such a request, I know that I am contravening the sacred “women helping women” rule of modern women’s empowerment, which (unofficially) states that when a fellow woman asks you for help or wants to collaborate, you must say yes…or you are not a woman helping a woman.

It’s an implicit social pressure which, for a modern woman in business who has a professional career, personal life and, you know, a mind, body and spirit to nurture, is borderline tyrannical.

When men in my network approach me for help, it’s typically to ask for an introduction or a piece of information. Both are easy to provide and to my great, swooning relief, generally require less than five minutes to complete.

If women are ever to offer each other any real, practical help, we need to quit asking exclusively for one another’s time and instead focus on asking one another for leverage—introductions, connections, information, opportunities. If you need to be inspired by another woman’s journey, try the biography section at Chapters. And if you are a woman with severely limited time to give at this stage of your career, resist the pressure to say yes to every coffee request. When it comes to women helping women, the first woman to help is yourself.

1 Comment to “The tyranny of women helping women”

  1. Thank you Eleanor, saying “no” and “give me just the details”, has some feeling like I am the nasty bitch of business instead of the healing and nurturing persona they think I am.
    I appreciate your point, and will be glad to ask for clarity when I am pursued.

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