I returned a few days ago from my now-annual trip to Canada. Two days in Montreal with my friend and colleague Maggy, and three days in Toronto with my pals Sharon and Kerry.
I’ve come to think of these trip as my yearly life reviews. They’re not sight-seeing trips or vacations; they are experiences—like going to a multi-day retreat with other women who are also growing personally and professionally. We put our lives under glass and talk through every angle of success, barriers and ambition, as well as take mandatory trips to the spa or breathe fresh air walking down country lanes. We sort through our individual life and career challenges, and give each other honesty, support, and sometimes challenging feedback.
Experts often remind us that there’s a difference between male and female culture in the workplace. In its simplest form, male culture is often known as “bro culture” or “the boys’ club.” We’ve heard it best described as an unspoken bond men share wherein they feel obligated to stick up for each other, help each other, or cover for each other, even if they don’t like each other. One male manager told me, “We know we have each other's backs. It’s just what men do.”
On the other hand, we may not always see the same behavior between women—at least not consistently in the workplace yet. Women, while generally speaking not as competitive as men by their very nature, often exhibit behaviors that make them appear unsupportive of other women, and sometimes view other women’s success as threatening to their own. “I’ve got your back” does not appear to be in our DNA in the same way it is for men, and we have to be more conscious in our efforts to reach out to help…and be helped. (And that part is another subject altogether.)
Spending time with my friends in Canada made me deeply appreciate the relationships I have with these women—both personally and professionally. They have shown me over time that they would have my back under any circumstance, and I would theirs. It’s no surprise to any female I know how powerful the bond between women friends can be—from childhood BFFs to college sororities to book clubs, Girls’ Night Out or Ladies Who Lunch, women depend on their friends for so many things, and will show up and support each other under the most extreme circumstances. So why not at work?
We could take a lesson from our gentlemen colleagues and bring more of that kind of support for each other into the workplace. Here are three simple ways you can show your female colleagues that you have their backs:
1. Draw out her idea.
We’ve all been in a situation in which a female colleague presents an idea or raises a question in a group discussion, and her contribution is glossed over in flow of the debate. Moments later, a male colleague says essentially the same thing, and the group responds enthusiastically to his “new” idea. This is a great opportunity to speak up and ensure that the credit lands where it is deserved.
“Great idea, Steve,” you say. “Rachel mentioned literally the same approach just five minutes ago, so I’m glad you brought it up again. Perhaps we could ask Rachel to share more of her thinking now that we’re focused on the topic together.”
2. Work on building your own confidence.
Confident—not arrogant—women are more likely to be able to offer support for other women because they don’t feel threatened by other women’s success. True core confidence reflects a willingness to show both our strengths and vulnerabilities, with focus on building resilience to life’s ups and downs. Confident women more easily show compassion and empathy to others because they are less focused on protecting a fragile ego with defensiveness or blame.
3. Stand up for each other in tough situations.
Silvia, an account manager in a high-tech firm, described a situation in which she was asked to give an impromptu presentation to the CEO. She knew her material, but was rattled by the last-minute request. “I didn’t feel good about my presentation,” she said. “I couldn’t put the right sequence to my thoughts and it was a mess!” Worse, the CEO berated her in front of the group for her “lack of preparation and expected expertise on the subject”. She said she felt terrible about the whole situation. Her supervisor, Rose, pulled her aside after the meeting and said, “Oh, I know the feeling. I’ve been there. That was certainly not a fair situation for you.” Rose followed up by speaking privately with the CEO about his public criticism of Silvia, and he later apologized to her.
True empathy involves not just “feeling with” another, but acting proactively on that feeling. Standing up for other female colleagues sends the message: “We’re in this together, and I’ve got your back.”