How do you engage other women at work? Do you support them? Do you see them as competition for jobs you want? Do you see them as competition for male approval? Are you a change agent for programs your company might adopt to make it easier for women to navigate their careers and caregiving responsibilities?
Ten years ago, I had the wake-up call that my children weren't always going to need me and that I was missing out on so much. I had a high travel job, when I was in the office my commute was two-hours+ each way, and when I needed an accommodation in my schedule, it was often done as a personal favor.
But most times, I didn't even ask.
I didn't want to stand out as a person who needed special accommodations. I thought that if I worked in a company that had a higher percentage of women in leadership positions that I might have a better chance of finding programs that supported women's lives as well as to give and receive support with other women.
[Read More: Unfortunately, Many Women Aren't Asking for a Raise.]
So the only way I could figure out how to solve this issue after struggling with it for 20 years was to make a radical change. I left my Wall Street career and we moved our family to Delaware. I remember telling my husband that I wanted to live far enough away from New York that I couldn't easily run back to my comfort zone, and close enough in case this new strategy was unsuccessful.
In making this change, I began consulting and working with several companies. I was able to have more control over my travel, I was often less than an hour from home, and the balance in my life greatly improved. I was also working in companies where there were a lot of women. I was so happy with my decision.
But working in companies where there were a lot of women wasn't what I thought it would be. I came to several realizations:
- I found that women were not as supportive of one another as I had expected. There was a lot of competition between women for jobs that other women held.
- Many women would compete for male attention by being flirtatious and circuitous.
- I met women who outright blocked other women not because of capability but out of revenge.
- There seemed to be a whole "queen bee" thing going on which I never saw on Wall Street.
- Women would ask for male coaches and mentors. Or worse, HR Departments were assigning women male coaches so they could be more like men.
- The conversations that might seek support for our shared struggle to be present to our families and to our careers were discounted as "being uncommitted" rather than being held up as issues for change.
As women, we are the care givers of our homes - for our families, our children, and our aging parents. Even when our spouses are awesomely supportive, there is much that falls to the women.
I was consulting in two companies, and working with two different women in 2011, when my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.
I expected that these women would understand all the implications that came with a terminal diagnosis of a parent. I was the only daughter, my mother's caregiver and voice, and I was a daughter who was experiencing the tremendous loss of the person who knew and loved me my entire life, and whom I deeply loved.
One of these women was supportive, flexible, and reasonable. We created a game plan knowing that the months ahead for me were going to be filled with emergencies and responsibilities that could not be ignored or predicted. We talked about how to stay in communication. We talked about a back-up plan and she engaged project teammates to be able to step in when and where it was needed when a crisis occurred.
During our weekly touch-bases, she shared with me her own stories of losing her dad a year earlier and we walked together on this path of grieving and loss, supporting one another. I will always be deeply grateful to her.
The other woman was not supportive. In, fact, she was horrible.
The work in this group was expanding at the time and she wanted me to take on more responsibilities - meaning more time at work at a time when I didn't have it to give. I explained the situation with my mom and the steps I had taken to ensure I delivered on my projects. But, as a consultant doing project-based work, I told her that I didn't have the capacity to take on any more work until my situation changed. This woman went into a berating fury.
As women, we know the tremendous responsibility this caregiving role has in our lives.
We know how it rips out our heart to leave our new babies to go back to work at the end of maternity leave. We know how difficult it is to balance all the activities that come with raising children and trying to stay in the talent cue at work. We know the personal sacrifices that we make so that others have what they need - at home and work.
[Related: The 9 Secrets to Thriving as a Working Mom]
What I have learned through this and many more experiences in the past 10 years, is that as women, we need to change the conversations we have with each other. We are the ones who need to support one another. We are the ones who need to be leading initiatives in the workplace to create programs for new mothers returning from maternity leave and programs to support women staying on a career track when high travel is no longer possible. Sometimes we just need to be grounded for a while, but if we allow this to happen, we need programs that allow us to preserve our place in the talent cue.
We are the ones that have to change the conversation about the way we women support women at work.
Let's shed some light on this issue. Share your comments about the kind of support you've needed as well as your success stories.
Ellevate Network is a global women's network: the essential resource for professional women who create, inspire and lead. Together, we #InvestInWomen.