I’m becoming more and more convinced that all the skills I need can be found within my WeLead Circles. From marketing and design, to copywriting, music, project management and research – I can’t begin to tell you how brilliant and generous my tribe of WeLeaders has been in helping us make this the best women’s leadership event yet. Continue reading
There’s one particular theme that has recurred in my work with women in leadership that I have resisted and challenged for years. And this is the complaint – reinforced by countless women – that the women they encounter in organisations are far less supportive than their male colleagues.
Surely we can’t generalise about more than 50% of the world’s population? Surely there are good women and bad women in the same way that there are bad and good men?
And is it reasonable to expect unconditional support from a sisterhood just because we belong to the same gender?
Even the editor of a South African glossy magazine who is a role model for many young working women, wrote in a recent editorial that “more men than women have had an empowering impact on my career.” And I couldn’t help feeling she’d let the team down with her comment.
Many men I have spoken to assure me that women tend to romanticise the ease of male relationships. “Do you really think we’re part of a supportive congenial network and that you are the only ones who suffer with politics?” they counter.
The only advantage they seem to share is that they don’t expect a brotherhood of loyalty. They know that politics is part of organisational life and that’s that.
But my reservations aside there are just too many women referring to the “pull-her-down” (PHD) syndrome as one of the main challenges facing women in organisations for me to continue dismissing it as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And despite my intellectual discomfort with sweeping generalisations, I haven’t forgotten the “mean girl” dynamics I had to contend with at primary school. And now that it’s my own daughter’s turn to navigate the teen years, I watch her struggle with the same issues I hoped that I had left behind me forever.
It seems that there is no girl or woman who isn’t familiar with the patterns of inclusion and exclusion that leave us hurting and our mothers helpless. So what is it? Does it exist? Why does it exist?
Feminist author Elizabeth Debold suggests that the roots of this behaviour go back further than we might imagine. Research on female primates show that many of our evolutionary foresisters spend their time grooming others to avoid being picked on and holding grudges against each other that make reconciliation impossible, all to gain an advantage in sexual reproduction!
But Elizabeth (who joined us via Skype at one of our women’s leadership conferences a few years ago) also believes it’s possible for us to grapple with our primitive drive to compete with each other so that we can realise a higher potential. (Which I can’t help thinking is a human opportunity rather than a particularly female one)
The challenge is that there is very little advice on what to do and how to behave in a way that builds resilience and compassion at the same time. Usually the values we encourage at the dinner table are very different to the ones that are celebrated on the playground.
So what can we do to help our girls develop a more positive way of relating to each other?
- We need to change the narrative that happens around girls and girlfriends. Yes there might be mean girls who bring your daughter down but focus on the friends who support her too.
- In the same way that Hollywood idealises romance, unrealistic images are often painted of “best friends” . I have some wonderful women friends in my life but none of my relationships bear much similarity to the kind between Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson in Bride Wars. Celebrate the small acts of kindness and support you get from your friends and your daughter will start developing more realistic expectations too
- Teach your daughter what it means to be a good friend so that she “becomes the change” rather than waiting for the perfect friend. Praise her for loyalty, courage, compassion and practical things too like remembering birthdays and phoning a friend when they are sick to offer homework help
- In my work with women leaders I ask them to reflect on who they turn to in times of crisis when they refer to the PHD factor. The answer is invariably “my women friends”. But sometimes we neglect these friends in our busy lives – something of which I am often woefully guilty. But in the tradition of appreciative inquiry practice, what we appreciate appreciates. Our relationships need time if they are important to us.
- Remind your daughter to choose friends who are worthy of her and her energy. Whether they are male or female, we need to encourage affirming relationships in our lives while we limit the toxic ones. This way we’ll have more time to spend with the people who deserve us and who we deserve in return.
By developing some conscious guidelines, we’ll start changing the narrative rather than leaving each generation to struggle it out for themselves. After all if we aren’t taught what it means to be a good friend on the playground, how can we expect a leg-up a few years later in the even fiercer battleground that is the workplace?
The PHD (pull her down) factor was the subject of our #welead chat on twitter last night. These chats around leadership are taking place every Wednesday night at 7.30pm CAT in the build-up to our 9th Annual Women’s Leadership Conference on May 22nd and 23rd.
When we launched our latest offering “The Inspired Teachers Conference“, which is just around the corner, a friend asked me how many more conferences I was planning to create. The truth is, I honestly don’t know. But I will probably continue for a while because I’m addicted to the thrill of learning and discovering together.
I’m not sure exactly when the habit started but over the years, whenever I’ve been faced with a problem I can’t solve by myself, I host a conference.
In the process I’ve met fascinating people from a variety of different fields, but perhaps most significant of all, I’ve learnt something very important about how we learn. We learn better together, in conversation.
I often quote the findings of Harrison Owen, founder of Open Space Technology, who researched what it is that people enjoy most about conferences. The answer? The coffee breaks.
So, over the years, we’ve worked with the tension between attracting a star-studded cast and making sure that there is enough time for delegates to spend as much time as possible talking among themselves… because these are the conversations that are remembered years later, long after the logos on the goody bags have faded.
Like most lessons that stick, the only way I’ve learnt this lesson is through personal experience. I remember the first time I experienced working with a syndicate group when I was at Wits Business School many years ago. It was hell. Dunne, who had already completed his MBA and was far more experienced in the political dynamics of the syndicate, was amused as I tossed and turned at night, trying to come up with ways to get my all-male syndicate members to give me air time the next day.
Sleepless nights notwithstanding, some of the insights I learnt through that experience (most of them about myself) have stayed with me far longer than the finance notes I wrote down and tried to learn by heart.
The interactive experience of the syndicate group used by business schools is a valuable one, but it’s not nearly enough.
Etienne Wenger coined the term “Communities of practice” to describe the age-old phenomenon where people engage in a process of collective learning towards a common goal. His work has influenced educators ever since.
But collaboration in learning is now becoming even more prominent as we all get thrown together by the big melting pot of the digital economy. In fact, as gaming expert Jane McGonigal told World Economic Forum delegates recently, the 10 000 hours of gaming that the average young person will spend by the age of 21, will be spent honing the mastery of collaboration.
That’s why business, leadership and education is looking to the world of gaming for some insights. Young people might be obsessed with an online world that scares the living daylights out of us as parents, but they are also mastering skills we don’t know nearly enough about.
We know that the ability to work together across boundaries and across cultures is going to be one of the most essential leadership skills for our economic survival into the future. But many of us haven’t even mastered the basic art of listening, never mind the more advanced skill of working together.
I’m reminded of the importance of these skills every time I host a conference and learn as much from the delegates as from the speakers. Now that I’ve discovered this truth for myself there are all sorts of theories I can find to back up what I’ve already tested out more times than I can count – the best learning is learning together. And that’s why I keep creating conferences.
PS This also doubled up as my editorial for the February issue of The QualityLife Journal. If you’d like to subscribe (which would make me very happy) send an email to join-WLJ@quallife.co.za