Do Women Really Need To Help Out Other Women?

Last month I was invited to participate speak at a seminar for Oxford University’s Oxford Women In Politics group. 

The seminar was titled “Are Women Their Worst Enemies”, and was sparked by my post right here on WITsend, called “ Are Women In Tech Their Own Worst Enemies?”. 
I have to admit sitting in front of 30 of the country’s best and brightest who make it their business to attend regular OXWIP meetings was a tad bit intimidating. Why? Well, for starters it was a small room. Secondly, I was going in to a discussion, guns blazing, on how women need to help each other out in business, to a group of fairly innocent University students who were, well, young enough to still be in University.
They weren’t technically in business. Fact of the matter is you can only have so much experience in University. Not to say that these women haven’t had to work with other women before, or have never experianced sexism, but as anyone who has gone to any sort of school knows – life outside school doors is different than life behind them. 
So, there I was. With my bitchy website and my red lipstick ready to have a great discussion about with women who agreed with me that women in business (or politics, or tech, or feminism – take your pick) are their own worst enemy. 
Like that whole Geek ‘n Rolla panel discussion, I failed tremendously in assuming that these women would agree with me. Instead, my words immediately made the room uncomfortable. 
Women are what to each other? They behave how? Did she say “bitchy”??? Can you say on that on TV?
I can hardly blame them. It’s not a topic that goes down particularly well online, never mind In Real Life.
But it was interesting to feel so much resistance to the idea that women weren’t always that kind or helpful to each other in business or politics. 
“Well, maybe it’s a good thing if women don’t always open doors for other women. You know, you have to work harder,” one woman said.
“Maybe it’s better if everyone doesn’t share their contacts. It makes you find them out for yourself,” another suggested with raised eyebrow.
Then, with a huff, I was told: 
“We shouldn’t be perpetuating the steroetype that women are catty to eachother. We shouldn’t be saying that women are bitchy to each other. If there is friction between women in business, surely it’s just  symptomatic of the system. The system is the problem.”
I blame the patriarchy!
After a lot of explaining of myself (“No of course you shouldn’t only help a woman because she, too, has ovaries.” “Yes, of course figuring things out for yourself is helpful.”) we finally cut through the initial defensiveness and Feminist Political Correctness, and got on the same page. Well, the same chapter. (Same volume?)
So what did we agree on?
That women, especially women in technology, business and politics, need role models. We need someone who is visable in sectors other than films, TV and fashion who are willing and able to set the bar. To be an example. Open the door and show the way. 
We don’t need babysitters or someone to tell us what to do, but women in business need a bit of support. We need the, “Look at [insert name of kick ass woman here]! Look at what she’s doing!” We need accessible  and willing mentors and role models and women who are willing to say, “It’s f***ing hard to be woman in this industry. Let me give you a few pointers.”
Support is much different than telling someone exactly how to do something. Why not lead the horse to water without being terrified that you’re not only going to make it drink, but guzzle down the whole river. Your river. Shock! Horror!

We also agreed that women need better communication skills with other women. Even, dare I say, communication skills in general. We actually agreed that women can sometimes take constructive criticism more personally than men, especially when said criticism is coming from another woman. 
The way women communicate with each other is definitely a problem, and I was really pleased that the ladies of OXWIP readily if not happily brought this subject up. 
At a recent dinner for women in fashion, Stephanie Phair opened her speech by quoting Madeleine Albright:
“There’s a special place in hell for women that don’t help other women.”
I think that statement pretty much sums it up for me.
I simply want women in tech and every other male dominated industry to simply help each other. We absolutely need to take responsibility for our own careers, and to watch our own backs. Of course, of course, of course. 
We can’t expect other women to hand over every single contact they have, or to play soft just because we have matching chromosomes. Business doesn’t work like that. Business isn’t soft. 
But it would be nice if we could at least admit that we should be kinder to each other. Maybe admit that it’s hard enough already without having to worry about catty, high school BS. 
It would nice if mentoring younger women became a priority for older, more successful women. (Or even successful young ones!)
It would be nice if the women at the top would be more comfortable being a role model, and being more visable so that women who are just joining a testosterone-heavy field could see that it was possible to climb the ladder and succeed. 
Wouldn’t it be nice…
Cate Sevilla is the founding editor of . You can follow her on Twitter as @ cupcate.

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Great post and brava to you for tackling the subject. I spent many years working in the corporate world and encountered first hand the tension between successful women, as well as the lack of an important component of success that men institute regularly - mentorship. At BBDO and Grey, two large advertising agencies that I spent many years at, senior executives routinely mentored and groomed smart, promising young men. But the few women in leadership positions were too busy defending their precarious toehold in the executive ranks to do the same. In fact, more often than not, women executives nurtured relationships with rising male stars as well as established male leaders, leaving young women with brains and ambition to fend for themselves. At first I hated those high-heeled, Armani-suited traitors. I couldn't believe that they wouldn't want to pave the way for other women. But then I realized that the executive corridor was predominantly male and the one or two women allowed in were tokens. They all would eventually come to the realization that they may have stretched the glass ceiling, but hadn't begun to break it and for nearly all of them, they'd gone as far as they were going to go in the corporate world. Their selfish behavior towards other women had been shaped by their circumstances. There was only room for less than a handful of women at the top and those that made it were going to protect their spot.

15 years later, things have definitely changed, but clearly, it's still an issue. The more we encourage women networking and mentoring, the closer we'll get to parity.

As a woman in tech I was very lucky to have a strong female mentor in my first job out of school. She was the COO at the company and for a while was also a team lead, project manager and a sales director all in one (we were a small company). She amazed me from day one and I still look up to her professionally. She encouraged me and gave me loads of opportunities to grow and take on new responsibilities.

I haven't experienced any of the cattiness that you mention with her or any other women in my field. So I know that it is possible for women in tech to work together as you describe.

It would be great to know that we (women) could have these conversations without having to go through the "the initial defensiveness and Feminist Political Correctness" first. I wonder if there was another way the conversation could have been framed that would not have engendered (an accidental pun!) so much resistance...

"need role models. We need someone who is visable in sectors other than films, TV and fashion who are willing and able to set the bar. To be an example. Open the door and show the way.

We don't need babysitters or someone to tell us what to do, but women in business need a bit of support. We need the, "Look at [insert name of kick ass woman here]! Look at what she's doing!"

I couldn't agree with you more! We have the numbers, the power and the opportunity, but WE must seize it and use it to benefit each other and the world we all live in. I "career transitioned" 3 years ago to start my own business and create a niche to advocate for women/in business. We have to earn our way,we have to step up and step out. I hope you will stop by and visit my website:, and I would love for you to guest on my radio show sometime soon. Thanks for your spirit and post.