Are Women Good at Supporting Other Women?

This morning I got a tweet from Kathy Caprino, who is attending @85broads event. She noted that the topic for the day was that old warhorse “Why aren’t women better at supporting other women?

I would like to share with everyone what I wrote on this subject in 2005, because clearly it is still relevant.

Here follows:

Are Women Bad at Supporting Other Women?

Sally Helgesen

Chatham, NY, May 16, 2005.

I just returned from a trip to New Orleans, where I had a blast addressing 900 members of the Junior League, mostly officers and incoming or outgoing presidents.  It was a great group, and I am convinced of the truth of the League’s self-description–– that it is indeed a leadership training organization for women.

In addition to giving a keynote, I met with the board one afternoon for one of those pick-your-brain session at which I learn as much as the people I’m there to help.  One of the questions that most often kept coming up was one that I’m frequently asked in many contexts:  Why aren’t women better at supporting one another?

This led to a lively discussion that allowed me to articulate my views on this subject better than I have been able to in the past.  What I have to say goes against the grain for many, but I want to share it with you.

First, I think women are often terrific at supporting one another.  Not always, and not all women, but in general this seems to be one of our great strengths.  Much (though not all) of the real help I’ve had in my work has come from women, who tend to be very responsible about following through on their promises and generous in sharing their resources.  And almost all of the real help I’ve had in my personal life has come from women, who listen, ask questions, think seriously, and are openhearted with their wisdom.

Yes, I’ve been burned a few times, put my trust in a few women who did not earn it.  And I’ve certainly heard horror stories from women in the workplace who have been undermined or blindsided by other women.  But is it really only women who have undermined them or failed to give them support?  Or is it that they notice it more when women don’t come through?  Perhaps we expect women to support us in ways that we don’t expect men to do, and then feel betrayed when these hopes are disappointed.

I believe this is what happens in many cases.  And I’m starting to think that this whole women-don’t-support-other-women conversation is just another way for women to bash themselves.  I’ve seen men who are terrible at supporting other men, who stab supposed friends in the back and gossip cruelly about co-workers, but I have never gone to a conference or other gathering and listened to men agonizing about why men aren’t better at supporting other men!  The notion is almost ludicrous.

I don’t think this is because men are better at being supportive, but rather because it’s not an issue for them–– they don’t expect it, and so don’t focus their concern on other men they don’t find supportive.  They just think, “he’s a jerk,” and move on.  They certainly don’t use it as an occasion to question the goodness of men in general.

But then, men aren’t usually that interested in talking about what is wrong with men, whereas women often have a strong appetite for this kind of negative self evaluation.  As I often mention in my keynotes, there’s a big market for books on what is wrong with women–– women who love too much, love the wrong people at the wrong time–– whatever.  You can find a whole wall of such books in most bookstores because women provide a market for them.  By contrast, you won’t find even a shelf of books about what is wrong with men­­ because men have no interest in the topic.

I’ve spent most of my career trying to help women focus on what they have to contribute rather than how they need to change.  I think this is the answer to the conversation now taking place about women and support.  Women need to stop accepting the cliché that they are uniquely bad about supporting one another.  It might be more helpful if we instead recognized that the underlying problem may be expecting too much from other women, requiring them to be perfect human beings and then feeling disappointed when they don’t prove to be so.

What do you think?

2 Responses to Are Women Good at Supporting Other Women?

  1. I think you’re so right that women are great supporters of other women. I agree that expectations can lead us to feel deeper hurt when a woman backstabs or otherwise tries to hold us back.

    I see those kind of women as having low self-esteem; and they can’t seem to deal with other women getting “ahead” of them in some way. They don’t realize that they will go farther in life by being positive and supportive rather than negative in their attitudes, words, and behaviors.

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