I remember the first time it happened.
It was Monday morning following our last PTC WTF event at Ravish and I was running in between meetings. She was just as busy and focused on getting from point A to point B as I was but as we walked past one another we locked eyes and smiled. It was a smile of recognition and camaraderie. Normally this wouldn’t have been remarkable. I have attended countless conferences and seen and passed probably hundreds of women going between meetings over the course of my career. She and I never crossed paths before the event the previous night but it didn’t matter. We knew each other now and had a shared experience. Today was different.
At our last event one of the topics we focused on was this concept of women and competition. All of the articles and all of the data and studies seem to indicate that where there are fewer of us we are naturally inclined to tear each other. This is survival of the fittest ladies… right? We asked the panelists at ITW the same question and offered up the following from a 2016 Forbes article titled The Dark Side of Female Rivalry in the Workplace and What To Do About It:
On our panel there seemed to be a common theme that at least in our industry the source of our competition is not women competing with other women. Or at least if it did exist previously it seemed to be improving. Does it mean that competition doesn’t exist? Of course it does. However, like a lot of things in life, our experiences have shown that the situation is much more nuanced and ever evolving.
I have personally had to compete with both men and women. It’s work after all and we’re all supposed to be striving for recognition, deals, improved performance, promotions, projects, and many other things. It wasn’t until a couple years ago when I took an inventory on my life that I realized the majority of my industry friends and career confidants were men. Despite the friendships I had made with other industry women over the years I was not actively seeking advice from other women. These were women that I valued and appreciated but what I realized was that I wasn’t listening and learning from them and this needed to change. In hindsight I think it was because when I looked at the technical leaders around me it was far easier for me to network, learn from, and emulate people who were in positions of power that also happened to be men. It was a strategy that worked ok for me up to a certain point in my career when it didn’t.
Two years later I am proud to say that through this network I have had the privilege of meeting and learning from some remarkable women. Like the subject of competition, the process of learning is also quite nuanced. Some of my lessons have come through hearing from other women and learning about their experience. One of my favorite lessons came after I was told I was not listening and being too domineering by one of my esteemed co-founders and closest friends. She wisely told me that I could benefit from listening more to what the other women on our team had to say. It was equal parts challenging and uncomfortable to hear as the delivery was honest and kind. So I shifted and we’ve since benefited significantly from it. Sisterhood isn’t just about love and good times; it’s about being ok with calling each other on our bullshit in a way that lets the other person know that you are still there for them on the other side.
Listening is a pretty powerful tool and frankly one that doesn’t discriminate against gender, race, socioeconomic status, title, or political leanings. Friendship and support networks start by building personal connections and the only way to do that is to stop, listen, and invest in the other person. The value in being heard is unmeasurable but it has the potential to change who we are and I believe our experience at work and in our industry.
If the Forbes article is right and the source of competition stems from some external locus of control then what if we worked to change those external forces from within? Men and women ask me all the time what they can do to help change the status quo. There is no easy answer yet there are so many opportunities to address the multitude of challenges ahead of solving this problem. Sometimes the very thought of changing an entire industry is so daunting that it’s impossible to know where to start but starting is half the battle.
Ask a fellow lady to lunch or coffee. Ask for a 1:1 with someone you admire or want to learn from. Accept a 1:1 if someone junior to you reaches out to you for advice or support. You might think you are just one person but imagine what would happen to our industry and our retention rates if every woman did this? You might be the difference between that person staying or leaving.
There are a ton of resources out there to help you start a discussion with your leadership or HR teams who have expressed interest in building and investing in a diverse workforce. https://www.catalyst.org/ is one of my personal favorites and one that I refer to often. It has a ton of tools, worksheets, and infographics available for free.
Does your company have a group focused on supporting women? While we love our WTF community we also believe that our value extends beyond our circle and benefits from our collective involvement in organizations sponsored by our own companies. We’ve had a lot of success by word of mouth but also know that sometimes it helps to get support from within. We all lead very busy lives but sometimes showing up is the best way to contribute. As someone who often attends industry events one of the ways I have contributed to my company’s women’s leadership organization is by participating as an events chair within my organization to help drive awareness into what we’re doing.
It’s ok to start small. It’s ok to not know where to start. It is also always ok to reach out and ask for support when you need it. We wouldn’t have assembled such a wonderful and inspiring community of women had we not all wanted to create something bigger than ourselves. As we move into October and towards our upcoming event in Europe I am more hopeful and inspired by our wonderful community of women and look forward to seeing you all in a couple weeks and to our next wonderful event!