THE BLOG

Do Women Leaders Truly Support Each Other?

20/08/2013 12:53 BST | Updated 19/10/2013 10:12 BST

Should women be doing more to support each other? Why should they? These are questions that have been batted back and forth for years. And while the focus has, rightly, shifted away from blaming women for a lack of progress to senior positions, there is still a sense that some women could be doing more to build each other up individually.

First, let me be clear: there are plenty of influential women already taking action, from Newton Investment Management CEO Helena Morrissey's 30 Percent Club to Mitie CEO Ruby McGregor Smith, chair of the Women's Business Council, to specialist gatherings such as Girlgeekdinners to Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In foundation.

Clearly, there are women who actively go to bat for others as a group. Yet the uncomfortable truth is that some women still feel equivocal about other women's success. There are complex reasons for this.

Women can be harder on their own sex, according to author Caroline Turner. Those in influential positions may be reticent about advocating for others for a range of reasons (competition, accusations of bias) and others still say they'd rather work for a man than a fellow female.

This suggests that, beneath a veneer of solidarity we are less united in our approval, at least of a particular type of success. I saw this for myself at a recent conference for women leaders, where one of the speakers, an attractive billionaire businesswoman, was greeted with an almost palpable hum of resentment.

Here was a powerful demonstration the so-called 'double bind' paradox that allows you to be either competent or liked, but not always both. I hadn't expected it from a group of equally successful female peers. What might prompt such a response?

It occurred to me that women can feel both supportive of women as a group, while still harbouring a vague ill-will towards individuals or those outside their 'tribe'. New divisions -- say, between working mothers and those without children -- can exacerbate this sense of disunity.

Perhaps after years of being (unfairly) blamed for what were (and still are) institutional barriers to progress, women are more sensitive about being told how to get ahead (by other women). Maybe they share Marissa Mayer's desire to distance themselves from the 'militant' associations of feminism.

Not every woman is nurturing by nature. Some don't wish to 'share' and may even be uncomfortable about revealing too much to women peers, in case it shows their vulnerability. It's telling that a trait that binds successful women polled by website mysavvysisters.com is a wariness about making too many close (female) friends at work, and a desire to distance themselves from 'girlie' conversations which they associate with cattiness.

Perhaps all this demonstrates is a healthy sense of competition. But is that rivalry so fierce that we'd kick the ladder away rather than offer a hand up to aspiring women? I find this hard to believe -- it's as much a stereotype as the notion that women don't compete.

Most of us -- men and women -- are guilty of a little peer envy on occasion. I like the remedy that shifts your focus away from the individual of whom you're envious to the qualities that make you want to emulate them. This calls for self-awareness, though -- and a willingness to admit you're human.

The good news is that there is now a growing number of precedents to which supportive women leaders can look for inspiration -- whether that's by setting new gender equality targets (see Dame Julia King at Aston University) or starting your own business (like workingmums.co.uk).

Sponsorship is a great way of showing targeted and personal support for individuals. It does your own reputation as a leader no harm, either. "Paying it forward pays back. Developing others really increases your own visibility," says Anna Beninger of Catalyst, the advocacy group. "Essentially, what you are doing is showing the company that you are not only about your own advancement, but that you are invested in the future of the organisation."

What's more, emotion is no longer forbidden, but an increasingly valued quality among leaders.

This is giving rise to a new kind of support network that thrives on personal connections, according to Pamela Ryckman, author of "The Stilletto Network".

"Push members to pursue their passions. Help each other script difficult conversations, encourage each other to take risks, and don't be afraid to disagree," is her advice.

Those that embrace this approach tend to be those who are comfortable in their own (female) skin -- and evidence suggests they are better leaders as a result.