Women in Tech: Support Fellow Women and Embrace Men as Allies

Women and men meeting

Way back in 2006, while giving a keynote speech at a luncheon celebrating inspiration, the incredible Madeleine Albright said this: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Fellow women in tech…are you all nodding your heads right now?

Sadly, not a lot has changed in the 15 or so years since this oft-repeated quote became a rallying cry to inspire women to support other women. And there are intricate and ingrained psycho-social reasons why this particular “friend or foe” battle between female colleagues continues to occur.

Debra Christmas and Kelley Irwin take a deep dive into this “queen bee” behaviour in their new book, Please Stay: How Women in Tech Survive and Thrive.

Let’s explore some of what they found out.

Not ALL Women

I’m sure there are women out there saying “Wait. I most certainly have supported and mentored women in the workplace before.” So no, we’re not painting all women with the paintbrush of petty behaviour. But often, the women who ARE the most supportive now, have in fact faced this exact behaviour in their own early careers, and vowed to not repeat it.

Women are not delicate flowers when it comes to business. We invite and welcome healthy competition, a fair fight for a promotion or a new project to work on.

But women are also severely underrepresented in the workplace compared to men (that’s changing, but slowly). There’s an undercurrent of “there are only one or two places here for a female” – and, as Harvard Business Review wrote in a recent article, this “…can lead women to mistreat, underestimate, and distance themselves from other women, in order to increase their power and standing among men.”

If you had to struggle and make sacrifices to break through and gain ground in a male dominated field…surely you should have empathy for those coming up behind you.

We all know women who absolutely do not support their female counterparts; we all have our stories of women who have scars from climbing the male-dominated executive ladder and do not feel they should have to help other women – believing instead that those women need to succeed and ascend on their own.

Fairy Tales and Female Conditioning

We also know women who have actively sabotaged other women. They have actually made it difficult, got in their way, worked against them. The reasons are complicated. Many young women are conditioned to compete with other women – for the affection of little Johnnie in the fourth grade. We want him to like us better than Susie, so we push Susie down on the playground and get her out of the way. We have seen enough fairy tales like Snow White where the older, evil queen tries to eliminate the younger, prettier woman. Is that where the “Mirror, Mirror on the wall” syndrome begins?

Women in tech careers may also find their supportive work colleague has turned into a foe in a moment of competition. Competing to show your best self is warranted but competing by talking smack about your opponent is a clear indicator you are not really a friend.

If you are wondering if a woman at work is a friend or foe, find out if she has a “bestie.” A woman she confides in, a woman she can be silly with, a woman she listens to, a woman for whom she would drop anything. If you see she’s able to embrace another woman as an equal, this will tell you something about her, and whether she may be a threat or an ally.

Yes, Men Still Dominate in Business

Kelley Irwin shared her own story about being outnumbered as a woman in tech in a previous post, Women in Tech: Having the Courage to Be Uncomfortable, “I walked into a dinner event with 120 people at a technology conference in 2018 to find I was the only woman in the room.”

And it’s a fact that men dominate in the world of business.

  • The ratio of men to women in engineering is 5:1.
  • Seventy-two percent of women in tech have worked at a company where bro culture is pervasive.
  • A whopping 78 percent of women in tech feel they must work harder than male coworkers to prove their worth.
  • Women in tech see gender bias as an obstacle to promotion 4X more than men do, and 39 percent see it as a barrier to promotion in 2021.
  • A majority of women in tech (72 percent) are regularly outnumbered by men in business meetings

And for decades upon decades, women have “learned” that to succeed in our male-dominated workforce, you should act like a man. Dress like a man. Talk like a man. Deny your personal life. Don’t talk about your family. Just buck up!  Arrive to work earlier than everyone and leave after everyone else too.

Act tougher. Sound tougher. Bang the table now and then. Be the loudest, the gruffest, and the biggest bully. But for heaven’s sake – don’t you dare be bitchy!

It’s truly been exhausting.

Men Are Stepping Up as Allies

But things are slowly changing. Yes, in the workforce, particularly in leadership and executive positions, men still dominate. And because they do, we need their help to change the dynamics of our workforce and build companies and organizations that value the attributes of all genders.

For men who want to help and be real allies to women, just listen. Listen to women’s ideas, don’t interrupt, value the thoughts being presented, and focus on the message not the voice.

Ask how you can help. And then listen to the feedback on what will be helpful to that person. Speak up for women during key moments. Invite women to business events they may have been left out of. Talk about the expertise you see in them, recommend them for stretch assignments, support their promotions, and share information openly about their successes and career goals with influencers.

Upset the status quo where required. Do all of this because you believe it is right. Don’t do this to look good to a diversity council, a female boss, or a hiring committee who talks about equality. Do it because you believe women have talent and ideas and capabilities that are valuable.

It is important to express as little sexism as possible in your interactions with women and men to be a true ally. We need institutions that don’t tolerate bad behaviour, that have programs and initiatives to drive change towards equity and equality. Many men have stepped to the forefront, organizations like MARC (Men Advocating Real Change), and others are trying to do their part.

Having a tribe of women in your corner is powerful. And being that person for someone else is rewarding. Women need to also embrace men. As colleagues and allies and bosses and team members. It’s important for women to identify the men who want to help, and for women to treat men with respect and not to create an “us versus them” culture.

There are many seats at the table. Every time you open a new door and take your seat at the table, pull out a chair for another woman and invite her to join you.

Bonus: A Double Dose of Tips from the Tribe

Women as Friends or Foe?

  • If you believe you have a friend, find ways to leverage your collective strengths. Offer assistance, partner with them on projects, and value them.
  • Take care of the friends you have in business situations. Do this in front of people in meetings, in talent assessments, and behind the scenes.
  • If you believe you have a foe, validate if this is true. Clarify the intent so you don’t make a wrong assumption.
  • For a confirmed foe, leverage colleagues and be explicit on what help you are asking for (support your ideas, speak up for you in talent discussions, and challenge the foe when they knock your ideas down).
  • For a foe, assess if you should try to change it, ignore it, or get help from others to disarm and reduce the impact.

Embracing Men as Allies

  • Find male supporters.
  • Communicate your targeted goals to supporters so they can look for ways to help you.
  • State the challenges you face from your view and validate with a supporter.
  • Ask for advice, including seeking input on your personal brand and reputation and how you can strengthen your interactions with the broader team.
  • Provide clear requests to supporters on how they can help you. Ask them directly to be a sponsor, someone who will speak on your behalf and highlight your accomplishments in management discussions.