Honor Thy Sister!
There is a tsunami building in the women's rights movement. Unfortunately, it's occurring as a result of victims calling out the unconscionable, predatory behavior of men in power vs. a natural wave of female empowerment and a galvanized effort to kick some doors open and force attendance at the table. But hey, whatever it takes. It's time that this systemic victimization end and those who have skulked in the shadows for years with their dirty little secrets get yanked into a spotlight just their size.
But there's a huge elephant in the room that we all continue to dance around as the mob grows in size and might. In my 25 years as a male, C-suite Executive Assistant for some of the most influential companies in the country, I can attest that the most vicious, predatory behavior that I've seen throughout my career has been female-on-female.
I usually conduct a raise-of-hands survey at my workshops around the world and ask how many in attendance support female executives. As you can imagine it's a disproportionately small number. (see most Boardrooms for the answer to "Why?") I go a step further and ask which would they most prefer to support, a male or female exec. Surprisingly, 90% or more would prefer to work for male executives. 98% of my attendees are female. And it is a vehement majority who instantly begin regaling tales of the nasty treatment they'd received in previous roles supporting female executives.
After 10 months of traversing the globe hearing story after story from traumatized Assistants I believe we really need to shine a light on a rather sensitive subject. And that is bullying, abuse and sabotage among women in the workplace. I'm a dude, so I'm not going to purport to knowing all of the intricacies of female codes of conduct within their tribe. But I am a gay dude with a healthy dose of feminism coursing through my veins and have become quite successful in a role dominated by women. So my perspective, I believe, is valid.
I've supported some amazing female executives. I've also supported some whose primary means of transport is a broom. As a male Assistant, I could usually find some way to mitigate the nastiness I'd encounter from coarse female executives with humor or snarkiness of my own, at least to smooth over some of the rockier moments of the day. However, I've witnessed some downright horrible treatment of female Assistants by their female execs and routinely counseled crying, red-faced, emotionally shot Assistants on the sidewalk in front of the building. I'm not sure why this is, but women tend to go for the jugular when in conflict with one another. The rogue female execs that I've experienced seem to dial up the viciousness quotient an extra click or two if their Assistant makes a mistake or in some way doesn't perform to their expectation. I originally thought it was to remind them of the similar "you have to be better than..." speech repeatedly drilled into me as a Black child in a White dominated society. But I'm not convinced that's the case at all. It actually feels a bit more sinister and disturbing. I want to be careful here and not make this a mass generalization or indictment of all female execs. Far from it. But I know what I've seen for the last 25 years in the C-suite and, sadly, I hear the same story over and over at each workshop that I facilitate. There's a systemic problem here. And I believe it's rooted in insecurity.
Female Executive Insecurity
I believe there is massive insecurity in female executives and executives of color in companies where the overwhelming majority of the C-suite is comprised of White males. I believe there is an implicit bias that women aren't as equipped as men to lead a company or the country for that matter. And it's bullshit. However, I believe some female executives are, to an extent, complicit in perpetuating this bias. The bull-in-china-shop, teflon coated, my balls are bigger attitudes and comportment exhibited by some high-profile female execs, often directed at fellow female employees, is on full display for every male executive in the building with popcorn in one hand and cotton candy in the other watching it all go down to their delight and validation. I've secretly overheard some rather colorful conversations in the mens bathroom by men who are actually entertained by the ruthlessness and constant combat waged by their female counterparts.
Competition is real. Women and minorities innately feel more pressure to perform at a level that's one or two steps better than their White male counterpart. Even in college the pressure to outperform the perceived golden boys was intense. Competition for jobs was a practice in not only measuring up on a resume, but presenting yourself in such a way where you were just that much more compelling than your White male rival and hopefully enough for them to take a chance on someone outside the norm. (To be clear, this isn't about race or to excoriate White men. This is the reality that I and many of my female counterparts experienced in school and upon entering the workforce. Relax.)
Over time, and with rejection after rejection, you build that proverbial thick skin in order to dust yourself off after each disappointment and get back in the game. After years of holding yourself to such a high standard and being rejected based on obvious bias, it would be foolish to think that one wouldn't become a bit hardened by the time they start reaching higher levels in the organization. And this is where I believe women executives find themselves in trouble. The years of fighting for relevance, clawing their way into organizations, commanding respect in spite of pervasive male biases by doing double the work and being willing to sacrifice even more than their male counterparts...it all manifests in a hardened version of themselves with very little left in the form of patience, kindness (mistaken for weakness), and empathy for those less driven and hardcore.
I'm one of those strange people who is actually fascinated by executives' bad behavior. My recruiters would always send me to interview with "the Ari's," the ones who fired a ton of Assistants or whom everyone deemed way too demanding. I was raised in chaos, so I tended to be "The Screamer Whisperer" and successfully supported many amazing CEOs that no other Assistant would touch with a 10-foot pole. What I often found was that there was a fundamental breakdown in expectation and communication which led to most of the conflict. But one thing in particular with female executives always surfaced. And that was managing perception. Most female executives that I supported wanted to maintain an air of complete control over their brand and appear to be perfectly sorted at all times. Anytime there was even a small mistake or gaff, it was magnified exponentially and looked at as a personal attack on their brand, not simply the insignificant mistake that it was. And, instead of letting it go, it would remain an issue for months and become license to micromanage everything for months thereafter. In short, pure torture, especially for a top Assistant whose confidence is directly tied to the work they do. Micromanagement leads to more mistakes. Mistakes lead to abusive language. Months of abuse leads to attrition. blah blah blah
Gender, race and class imbalances have created many of the issues we've been dealing with in business for decades. Women and minorities have consistently held support roles in business. With each new decade more and more women and minorities have risen through the ranks, kicked in more and more doors, and commanded the respect of those who have traditionally held court in the Boardrooms. This has taken much longer than anticipated, but it's happening more as CEOs are getting younger and are more apt to partner and empower outside of the norm. So it beguiles and saddens me to overhear a bunch of dudes laughing at the urinals about the bad behavior of female execs toward other female employees, just as much as it angers me to hear inaccurate generalizations about Blacks or gays or any other minority when I'm simply trying to have a good poop in the corner stall. To witness women being downright abusive to one another with, clearly, no real ROI royally pisses me off. I've seen how it destroys other women's confidence. It's no different when I walk down the street, pass a fellow Black man and say hello and either get nothing in reply or a look essentially signifying, "F*ck off." It's disappointing, a little hurtful, and makes me feel less and less connected to a community that I'm a part of by default, but feel more and more let down by. And I'm sure women feel the same way when constantly abused and disrespected by their own.
This outing of the Weinsteins, Spaceys and Lauers is a seminal moment in the women's rights movement. It is an opportunity to galvanize and make huge advances in the way that companies view/hire/treat/promote women and just as big an opportunity for women to heal the fractures in their own relationships and treatment of one another. It is important to get this right as it could change history. However, I'm already seeing cracks in the alabaster with some rogue accusations threatening this momentum.
Rose McGowan recently called out Meryl Streep on Twitter for working with Harvey Weinstein and essentially accusing her of being complicit in his misbehavior by choosing to work with him. (Context: Rose McGowan, the famed Charmed tv actress, settled a rape allegation by Harvey Weinstein in 1997.) Now, while I feel some empathy for Ms. McGowan as a victim of childhood sexual abuse myself, I believe she was completely out of line here. Meryl Streep apparently reached out to her privately with her personal cell number and offered to chat live. The tweet was later deleted, so my assumption is they spoke. However, two lessons here: First, this woman being so cavalier in "her truth" could have tremendously affected the legacy of another woman that took decades to build, all based on a blindly emotional tweet that wasn't even based in fact. Second, as a woman, this was a break from "code." The civil thing would have been to reach out to her privately and verify (or debunk) those feelings before putting some bullshit out in to a world that is feasting on every salacious tidbit it's being fed. In one, ill-conceived tweet, Ms. McGowan has not only called her own integrity into question, but has given every short-sighted, misogynist businessman on the planet more fuel for their biases about "those emotional, irrational women." And, sadly, this is just a more public example of the same conflict and abuse that I've seen among women in companies for the past two decades.
So what's the solution?
Sadly, I don't have one. And it's not up to me...I'm not a woman. I could say, "Play nice," until I was blue in the face, but there's a much larger issue here. I believe it is up to female executives to seek out counseling or coaching to rally the support they need to feel empowered and less aggressive toward other women, especially if someone has brought to their attention they may have a problem. I believe women need to call out other women's bad behavior just as vehemently as they do men's going forward. I believe that women need to re-establish some sort of "Code of Conduct" that galvanizes them and is universally accepted as law. I believe men need to recognize their own biases and work diligently to debunk them by having real conversations with women and being open to hearing some not so kind truths about themselves and the effects their biases have had on women's lives. I believe companies need to take more risks in its hiring practices, especially at the top, by putting more women in positions of power to help break up the predominantly White male Boardrooms that continue churning out the same companies, non-progressive ideologies, and woefully imbalanced employee populations. I also believe that VCs need to fund more female-owned companies and stop using the few disgraced female CEOs like Elizabeth Holmes as license to ignore viable female startups to fund the boys who can better "handle it."
Women need more opportunities and, in all honesty, more practice getting it right. But I believe they also need to seek support and mentorship opportunities to help lighten the emotional load and validate that they are, indeed, just as capable. When insecurity manifests in competition, nastiness and abuse it sets the entire movement back. Not just for women, but for all of the other minorities fighting against similar biases and prejudices of the majority. We need more feminine energy and input in Boardrooms to not only soften the edges a bit, but to offer a more complete perspective and infuse the empathy, intuition and patience that most male-dominated Boardrooms lack. Our companies would benefit tremendously and likely see less attrition, less burnout, increased productivity in less time, and a general trend toward inclusion of people from all walks of life which creates rich company culture (newsflash HR!). Most importantly, women need to provide mentorship and support to one another without the fear of being taken advantage of or being stabbed in the back by their own. It's time to shed the biases, behaviors and suspicions that men have burdened women with for centuries. Women have their own, unique gifts they contribute to humanity. Starting with humanity itself. We all come from a woman. Remember?
Ladies, you've been victimized long enough. Why victimize one another? The movement may never get another chance to make a change this significant in our nation's history. Come together...RIGHT NOW.
Honor thy sister. First!