How to NOT support your fellow women leaders
Once upon a time I worked for this youth organization in Sweden. I began becoming involved my second to last year in high school, and after my graduation I was hired as a kind of consultant/coach for the local organization in my hometown.
I may not have had the greatest grades in high school, mainly because I was very involved with this organization, leadership, events, recruiting, etc. I worked really hard, and during my time as a consultant I began realizing how hard, and how much I was not ever satisfied with what I did, how insecure I felt and how I kept it all inside because I didn´t want anybody to know (naturally). The atmosphere in the organization at the time really didn´t fit me either, but that´s another story.
What I also began noticing was that so many of the leaders I coached were women. They were very different, but also similar in some ways. They were high-achievers, ambitious and well, great in general. What they also often had in common was some guys that they lead that could not handle their leadership. I talked numerous times with young women leaders that, in official meetings, were talked back to in nasty ways by their male board members. They came in late to meetings, brought friends that didn´t belong there, talked behind their backs and sometimes did everything in their power to just work against their leader.
Look, I know that this happens, women and men do it both, but this pattern was clear: young men who had a woman leader worked against her, instead of working WITH her. These women were not afraid to take they argument, but what was really hard to work against was this kind of half-ass behind-the-back policy.
So I connected these young women presidents/leaders for a leadership group, to talk about their issues and to be able to network and connect with each other. I also invited a few women that had left the organization a few years earlier, thinking that they could probably look at the situation from a fresh point of view and encourage the women that were now in their previous shoes.
My idea was received in a positive way by these women, and at the first meeting most of the leaders showed up. I began by introducing the thoughts I had when initiating the group, and talked a little about my own experience as a young woman leader. In order to open up for talk about insecurities, I also mentioned the fact that I had felt insecure the previous year, that I didn´t always trust myself and my own potential. The meeting went well, and the participants shared similar stories and made connections with each other.
So far so good, but after the meeting, when the younger women had left, one of the older participants told me something that to this days still makes me angry. I forget her exact words, but it was basically something along the lines of this: “Hanna, I have always seen you as so secure and confident. I cant believe that you are so insecure on the inside. It surprises me, and that gives me a weaker image of you.”
SO… I had for once opened up about feeling insecure in myself, and in my leadership position because I wanted the women to know that we all struggle, nobody is perfect, and YOU CAN STILL DO IT. And then one of the more experienced women looked down on me for being upfront about it. I have carried this shitty comment with me for years and mentioned it to one of the other women I worked with in the organization a few weeks ago. She had a higher position in the organization than me, but the same woman had told her that she was basically weak for leaving the organization when she did. And she is one of the strongest, least shit-taking people I know.
I am not claiming that we should all go around and be lovey-dovey with other women leaders just because we are women. But what I am saying is that it is hard enough as it is to be a woman leader, and nothing good comes out of critiquing one another in that way. Constructive critisism is usually good, but even better is the support and understanding in vulnerable situations.
I think you´re great at what you´re doing.