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The Transformative Power of Women Advocating for Women

It is a paradox of modern corporate life that women comprise less than 25 percent of executive-level positions, but they often do not advocate for other women who are, like they once were, seeking the top rungs. In other words, the relatively few women who are already in C-suites are not helping their numbers rise.

According to the Harvard Business Review, “some senior-level women distance themselves from junior women, perhaps to be more accepted by their male peers” and “trying to separate oneself from a marginalized group is, sadly, a strategy that is frequently employed.”

Addressing the need for a more supportive professional sisterhood, three panelists gathered at the Women Championing Women session, held during the 2022 Forté MBA Women’s Leadership Conference in June:

  • Juliet Greenblatt: Senior Advisor – HealthService Leadership Program, Cigna
  • Haleemah Oyefiade: Senior Associate, PwC
  • Maggy Warden: Senior Director – Underwriting Operations, Liberty Mutual

Here are the highlights of that conversation:

Making Room for Many Women at the Table

Discussing why women choose to not support other women, Juliet believes that “it comes down to power.” She explained, “When some people have power, especially if they never had it before…it can feel scary to give it up. That’s not true, but it can feel like that.”

She suggested that women who feel insecure can reframe the situation. “Look at it differently: you and I being here does not mean we each have half, [but together] we make double.” She also said that making a change often requires some discomfort. “Sitting with our feelings can be hard,” she acknowledged, but talking to ourselves and asking why we feel this way is a start.

“Women are harder on other women,” Haleemah said, which can be a “barrier to trust-building.” She suggested that by asking women higher up the ranks how they navigated their careers, “you are naturally breaking barriers” and making room for more women to have a seat at the table.

Calling Out Disrespect

Juliet acknowledged that early in her career she experienced some bullying from female colleagues, but she worried about retaliation if she stood up for herself. Being the recipient of disrespect from other women was “doubly hurtful,” she explained, “worse than being in that situation with a male supervisor.” As she has become more senior, she believes that “the hardest time to stand up for yourself is when it is the most important time to do it,” and she also sees it as her “responsibility to call out” inappropriate behavior when she witnesses it.

Maggy agreed that shining a light on poor behavior is sometimes necessary, but she suggested taking a constructive approach and cautioned that it can be unintentional. “Sometimes people are not aware of how they are being perceived,” she said. Maggy recently provided coaching to someone who was shocked that her behavior was seen as inappropriate. “It was a painful conversation, but I needed her to know and be aware,” she explained.

Finding Advocates

One of the most effective ways for women to bolster advocacy is to establish mentor/mentee relationships, which lay the groundwork for championing each other. To find advocates, Maggy suggests casting a wide net. “Find someone with similar experiences, and be vulnerable and authentic,” she suggested. “Not all personalities click,” she explained, so keep looking until you have found a match.

Juliet found it challenging to find a sponsor, but she targeted women who stood out to her and then “found a way to work on projects with them,” she said. On the flip side, finding a mentee also requires a commitment to find the right person. “You feel it,” she said, and “you want to check in with them.” She recommends finding someone with shared values and passions, who you are excited to work with.

Haleemah said it is essential for a mentor to genuinely care about your success. As she put it: “You want someone to have a vested interest in you.”

Growing Trusting Relationships

Finding the right fit for a mentor/mentee is only half the equation. Once you have identified someone, how do you nurture the relationship into something truly valuable?

Juliet recommends seizing every opportunity that comes along. She shared the story of a vice president at an insurance giant who put her name and number in a visible place for people to contact her for mentorship, and only two people called her. While it “is scary to reach out,” Juliet said, the rewards could be vast.

Haleemah likes to lead by example and offer solutions rather than “getting into the weeds of complaining,” she said. By doing so, “people will want to follow you, and your impact will be greater than you realized.”  She shared an example of a perception a group of people once had of her when they were trying to solve a problem. “People didn’t think I understood Black Americans because I am Black, but not American.” Her solution was to listen and find compromises, and they came together as a community. “Everything you do is building your reputation,” she explained.

Juliet agreed that leading by example is an effective way to imbue relationships with trust. She stressed the importance of making time for people even when the workload is burdensome, which it often is. When leaders prioritize their relationships and help others to grow, “it makes the mentee want to do it for someone else,” she explained.

Haleemah suggested volunteering together as a team, for example, as a way to build trust. Self-care and time away from the office is also essential. “Work is intense so it is important to take a step away,” she said, adding that the “more peace you feel in your personal life determines how you feel in your professional life.”

Building trust — and transforming less supportive relationships into strong advocates — is at the core of getting more women into leadership positions. As Maggy suggested: “As you move up, use your power” for good.

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