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Women Helping Women At Work

Posted: March 16, 2011

Stereotypes about women include that women helping women at work is rare. How true is this? We ask women at work.

By Aparna V. Singh

While the mistakes that female bosses make take on a life of their own, rarely do the praises of women who help each other in the workplace get sung. As in other spheres, phrases like “women are women’s worst enemies” are often repeated. However, if one refuses to buy into the stereotype of ambitious women as cats waiting to pounce on each other, it is worth exploring the idea of women helping women at work in what is often still, a ‘man’s workplace’.

The linear workplace, based on the assumption that workers (by default, male) will place work at the center of their lives and advance steadily up the ladder rarely works for women who have their own biological and social challenges. There are other issues too – top management in most companies still tends to be male-dominated, and women often get left out of the old boys’ network that gives access to those in power. As Cherie Blair recently said, “Fifty percent of the people are appointed on a board because they know the chairman…and it’s a chair-MAN.

In this environment, having the example and support of female colleagues can definitely make a difference.

Women helping women: A question of values

Sonu Ratra is one among the small number of women who have founded technology companies. Currently the President of Akraya Inc, a Sunnyvale, California based IT Consulting firm, her earliest work experiences were at HIV patient centers, orphanages and literacy centers while doing her Masters in Social Work at the Tata Institute of Social Studies (TISS), Mumbai.Sonu remembers very fondly the female team members whom she worked with closely and who taught her the importance of maintaining one’s integrity even under the toughest circumstances. She says, “I think of the lessons learnt from these other women colleagues as larger lessons in life.These women helped me understand the importance of building my career on the grounds of beliefs and values dear to me.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Poulami Majumdar in the early years of her career as Associate Lead – Business Partner HR with an Indian software technology firm in Pune. She completely credits her manager, also a woman, as being a mentor and career counsellor. Poulami says, “Given the nature of work and work related stress, I was planning to switch jobs within six months of joining. A very amateurish decision, and one on which I would have acted had she been not there to hand hold me through the initial phase.

Till date she continues to be my career counsellor and in spite of her being my reporting manager, I have felt free to discuss other opportunities coming my way with her and she has continued giving me useful tips and guidance for interviews and job profile selection. She has been active in making sure my work profile is enriched and that I move from transactional activities to HR solutions design and delivery.“

Women at work: Does gender matter?

You might ask that question, and fair enough, considering that there are inspiring male managers and co-workers too. However, there is no denying that most of us tend to have a comfort level with ‘people like us’; gender is one part of who we are, though not all of it. Sonu believes that when it comes to personal problems in the workplace, women do understand each other’s problems better. She feels that a woman is more likely to understand other women’s situations and know exactly what the other woman co-worker is going through. She says, “Women understand the complexity of womanhood better and therefore can provide better support for each other.” Moreover, gender does play a role in how women are treated in some workplaces and other women can be of help in tackling sexual harassment or sexism at work.

…there is no denying that most of us tend to have a comfort level with ‘people like us’; gender is one part of who we are, though not all of it.

Poulami has had mixed experiences in her short career and believes that it ultimately comes down to each individual. However, she does feel that her manager’s experiences in managing work and family are useful to other female team members. She adds, “She herself has made quite a few wrong career moves in the effort to balance both and hence has emerged wiser from each such experience. Her take on marriage, maternity leave, spacing out of family planning so that it does not impact the career, planned sabbaticals and work from home options are useful since these are things which she shares from her and her friends’ experiences.”

On the other hand, she cites the case of pregnant women who were given no support by a female boss, or instances of female employees passing snide remarks over a fellow woman needing to take time off.

What stops women from supporting each other?

This brings up the question of what makes some of us unsupportive of other female employees. A few reasons are:

Being one of the boys. Qualities perceived to be feminine, such as empathy, compassion or even flexibility, are not valued in most workplaces. Despite all the talk on diversity, most employers value employees with stereotypically male qualities and habits such as aggression and spending enormous amounts of time at one’s work. In order to make it to the top, women may feel like they must adopt these qualities. A female boss may be harsher on employees to prove that she has what it takes.

Not my situation. Women with children are often seen as demanding extra privileges, including by women with no children. Few people realise that a workplace with options to accommodate all kinds of people can help everyone, not just women or mothers.

Being branded as a women’s club. A group of men together are ‘networking’, while a group of women must be gossiping. Some women avoid hanging out too much with other women to avoid giving rise to such perceptions.

Qualities perceived to be feminine, such as empathy, compassion or even flexibility, are not valued in most workplaces. Despite all the talk on diversity, most employers value employees with stereotypically male qualities and habits such as aggression and spending enormous amounts of time at one’s work.

Of course, there will always be individual women as well as men who have little interest in supporting their co-workers, but this need not have anything to do with gender. There is no question though, that the presence of supportive women can make an enormous difference to women’s careers. Around the world, women, including female entrepreneurs have reported that the presence of other women in their field has helped them overcome barriers such as poor access to funding. Sonu Ratra has no hesitation in saying that women have a greater responsibility towards supporting other women both at personal and professional levels. She strongly recommends that women invest their time in building a strong network of women friends that they depend on personally and professionally.

Founder & Chief Editor of Women's Web, Aparna believes in the power of ideas

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  1. I agree having other women at workplace ‘can be of help in tackling sexual harassment or sexism at work.’

    And like male bosses, there is a chance that a woman boss is not supportive (and you have explained why too) but women would benefit from supporting co workers.

    I hope women start questioning the concept of how ‘most women naturally hate other women’.

  2. Nicely written. I have experienced the pleasure of working with women mentors and being a women mentor and the relationships have been beautiful and very nurturing !

  3. Another reason women don’t want to have a woman mentor at workplace is that a recommendation coming from a male is often given greater importance (not overtly, but subliminally) than that from a similarly accomplished woman. In the end, it is patriarchy that is the enemy of women. This exact same trend is seen in domestic circles as well. We have a long way to go before these preconceptions can be removed from society.

  4. Thanks all for your comments.

    @IHM – yes, we really need to start questioning that concept. after all, if we accept that women are rational beings too, why should we unnecessarily hate each other?

    @ Jaya – good to hear that. we need mroe such!

    @agnija – oh yes, that is true – firstly, not as many women are in really senior positions, and secondly, if a woman supports another, it is construed as a feminist club/favouritism and hence not to be taken as an objective recco, while a man supporting another is just the default!

  5. Very contemporary and thought provoking piece. Yes, for women who have reached the top (very few) and women who are at the base there is a big gap not only in positions but also in communication, that same gap might also be there among men, but I feel if we women can behave different and make a continuous chain along the line then we can be very happy doing whatever we are doing, after all, it will benefit we women, the organisation and the society as a whole. There is a strange sense of aloofness or air of maintaining false dignity in most cases which any of the side feel uncomfortable to cross. Women in senior positions are not preferred by junior female employee as it is observed that women in senior positions are mostly difficult personalities, and that I understand as a defence mechanism they have created while surviving in a male dominated market.

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