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Why Good Women Struggle to Be Great Allies

A couple of years ago I debuted my keynote speech "Speak Up: Bridging the Gap One Conversation at a Time". The talk addresses three points: 1) why speaking up is so instrumental to building a successful career, 2) what holds women back from doing it, and 3) what women and their allies could do to both speak up more and support other women. After the presentation, several women walked up to me to share feedback and personal stories, nearly every single one of them talked about the push back and resistance they received…. from women. 

Last year, I spoke to a group of female and male Marines on the topic of unconscious bias. I addressed three points: 1) the nature and impact of unconscious bias expressed my men on women in the Marine, 2) the steps we can take individually to recognize and address bias in ourselves and others, and 3) knowing this was important, I turned the tables on the women in the room and had them consider their own bias against other female Marines. Although every woman in the room acknowledged experiencing bias at the hands of other women, few if any would take ownership of their own bias.

If women experience and recognize the negative impacts of bias and discrimination on a daily basis in the workplace, why is it that so many of us fall short of being the best allies to other women out there? 

We're all part of the same system

Our specific biases are not innate, although the human tendency to form quick, easily generalizable and replicable judgments about any group is. The biases we hold today are learned, modeled, and reinforced through personal experience and interactions with others. Men and women are raised in the same system. We are implicitly taught the same lessons. We unknowingly express and reinforce the same beliefs. 

We don't mean to, but we're irked by that confident unabashed colleague who is clear about her contribution to a project and her worth. 

Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice

Girls are taught from a very early age that we should be all sugar and spice. Nice is the default expectation for little girls; helpful, modest, unassuming, pretty as a picture. You might not have heard those exact words or think that you expect this from girls and women today, but you do. As women, this shapes our ability to speak up, articulate our value confidently and unambiguously, and it prejudices us against other women who share their accomplishments, boldly acknowledge their skills, and step-up to ask for more. We don't mean to, but we're irked by that confident unabashed colleague who is clear about her contribution to a project and her worth. 

We're taught that Black women are angry and we quickly judge our co-worker when she vents her frustration about being passed up for a promotion; even though we would feel the same level of ire were we in that position. We implicitly believe that men have more expertise and value, so we more closely pay attention to the ideas of our male colleagues over those of our fellow women. We don't like being on the other end of these experiences, but those beliefs weave themselves into our unconscious and what we think becomes our reality. We act with bias because we are all part of the same system.

It's All a Game of Musical Chairs

Another reason good women struggle to be great allies has to do with scarcity. Rising up in the professional world can sometimes feel like an elaborate game of musical chairs. Round and round we go, working hard, trying to prove ourselves, putting in the hours, the lost personal time, building up that long list of degrees and certifications. Our hope is that we will be able to snag a seat at the table based on our merit and hard work. Alas, although there might be plenty of seats available at the top, there are only a few reserved from women. So we push, shove, and trip each other in the hopes that we can be the ones to be safe once the music stops. Again, most women don't actively recognize how obstructive they can be to other women rising on the corporate ladder. We think of ourselves as a sisterhood, but we tend to act like a pack of wolves all vying to be the new alpha. 

The Hazing Mentality

According to the vast majority of women I spoke to, lack of sisterhood and allyship is most significant when you move up the ladder. It's women in the early to middle stages of leadership who tend to display the most punishing and obstructive behaviors. From micromanaging to constant criticism, intolerance of emotional displays to unrelenting standards, there seems to be what I like to call a hazing mentality. The message "I had to fight this to get here, you will too," is coupled with a fierce instinct to protect the position they worked so hard to get. It results in unduly harsh treatment and unrealistic expectations enforced by women on women. Interestingly, by the time women have reached the highest levels of leadership and success, this tends to disappear. Maybe it's because their positions are secured and the threat of loss doesn't loom so large. Or perhaps it's because self-awareness and emotional intelligence are qualities often required to make it to the top.

Me Too

The hazing issue brings up one last, but very significant, way in which we as women fail each other. We overgeneralize our experience and assume that what we go through is the same for all women. This blinds us to intersectional factors like race, sexuality, age, ability, body type that layer themselves to make other women's realities far different and possibly harder than our own. We forget that our experiences at work are not uniform, that gender is NOT the single most salient factor in determining how we are treated and what opportunities come along. When we dismiss women of color's unique challenges, on account that we too have to fight to be heard and valued. When we ignore that the bias against obesity means that overweight women are automatically perceived as less disciplined and capable and that they have to work much harder to be recognized and valued, then we go beyond not being good allies, we actively contribute to maintaining the problem.

Better Women

We all recognize that women are impacted by bias and discrimination. As women we know exactly what that feels like, how much harder we work to be seen, how much louder we must speak to be heard. We bear a special responsibility to not perpetuate these patterns with one another.

Being a better ally starts with acknowledging your actions. Take a minute today to think of at least one woman you work with who you approach differently, less fairly. What are your assumptions about her? How do your actions hold her back? What's one thing you can do tomorrow to not act on the beliefs, history, and pressures that bias you?

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