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Verity CEO Mary Aitken, centre left, pictured with members of the business and social networking club in Toronto for women. (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and mail/Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and mail)
Verity CEO Mary Aitken, centre left, pictured with members of the business and social networking club in Toronto for women. (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and mail/Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and mail)

women@work

The myth of the unhelpful female leader Add to ...

I recently took part in two conversations, one with a man at the height of his career and one with a woman in the same position. While both advocate on behalf of women’s advancement in the workplace, they felt they needed to expose a dirty secret on this topic: Women don’t help each other.

I’m surprised by the persistence of the belief that women don’t support other women, or even undermine their efforts. I recall some instances early in my career when I felt other women treated me unfairly, but the last few years have been filled with examples of women, even strangers, supporting my professional endeavours.

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The notion that women will trip up others who are struggling along their own career paths appears to be so widespread that we need to tackle it head on. Ladies, it’s time for introspection: Do we genuinely feel too competitive? Or are our expectations of support simply too high for members of our gender? I would argue that it’s a little bit of both.

“It’s a conundrum,” said Mary Aitken, managing director and founder of Verity, a business, social and wellness club for women in Toronto. She suggests that a scarcity of women at the top of their industry or company might spur a sense of competition that trumps women’s inclination to be supportive.

“We don’t have hundreds of years of experience running corporations, so we’re still building our confidence,” she explained. “Twenty years from now, we’ll look back and wonder why this whole confidence thing was such a big deal.”

Ms. Aitken created Verity as an answer to the old boys club, to help bolster women’s support networks. A former investment banker, she said she spent years watching women rush home from work to handle the obligations of their “second shift,” while men took time to socialize over drinks. That after-work networking gave men priceless opportunities to informally share ideas and form relationships, crucial for career advancement.

Kathy Kram, a professor of organizational behaviour at Boston University, believes that the rise of professional women’s groups over the past 20 years shows an evolving trend of women supporting each other.

She said the nagging persistence of the idea that women don’t help and guide each other stems from a conflict with social expectations of women as nurturers. As women secure more senior positions in a business, that view runs up against the male model of effective leadership.

“As women advance, they are expected to fit the male executive model. If they start prioritizing the company’s goals and strategic objectives and are stretched because they are in an increasingly senior role, they may have to put boundaries around how much they can support junior women,” Dr. Kram said, adding that this can be seen as being unsupportive rather than a necessity to meet their time constraints.

And given the differing social expectations, if a woman declines to mentor a junior female employee, for example, it is often perceived more harshly than if a man were to do the same.

“Women do help one another a lot and are predisposed to help. But like everything else around women in business, when they don’t, it is given undue attention,” said Stephanie MacKendrick, president of Toronto-based Canadian Women in Communications, a national organization dedicated to the advancement of women in that sector.

She noted that women who come across as being unwilling to support other women were often forced to battle their way through mainly male business environments.

“There is a thought process that says, ‘I had to fight and give up a lot to get here, I don’t see why women who follow shouldn’t do the same,’” Ms. MacKendrick said. She often finds that these women are open to informal channels to assist others, but resist the idea of feeling obligated to help the next generation of workers.

Could this sentiment that women feel threatened by other women be generational? Whatever the reason, the notion that only a select number of women are allowed to rise to the top needs to be eradicated.

“Ten years ago, it was more common to hear the stories: Everyone knew about a woman who climbed the ladder, kicked the ladder away, and maybe even let it land on someone else,” said Jo Miller, chief executive officer of Women’s Leadership Coaching, a San Jose, Calif.-based company that works mainly in the high-tech sector.

“Thankfully all this is changing,” she said, “and there is a stronger culture of women helping women.”

Leah Eichler is co-founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women. E-mail: leah.eichler@rogers.com

Follow on Twitter: @LeahEichler

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