Our Own Worst Enemy

This isn’t going to be an easy read, but I think we need to hear it.

When I was in high school, I mostly hated girls. That was probably because they mostly hated me. For many women, high school was where we formed our first real thoughts of society, our first inklings of how life worked. Too often, what we learned was an emphasis on competition and comparison. We spent our days wondering how we could get that boy’s attention and why that girl was prettier or smarter or better than we were.

Some of us grew out of this quickly. I didn’t.

I spent my first year of college convinced that girls were not to be trusted. This self-enforced exile might have continued indefinitely, had it not been for two particularly patient young women who managed to infiltrate my supposedly impenetrable group of guy friends. This was a time in my life when I was not a particularly easy person to love, but they saw something in me that was worthwhile and when they fought to command my respect, they earned my wild adoration.

By forcing their way into my life, these women shattered my isolation, and in doing so opened me up to a much broader and more vivid world. They were incredible, complex and mind-blowingly beautiful human beings, compassionate high achievers, and they were somehow able to convince me that we didn’t have to fight each other to survive. To my surprise and eternal gratitude, we became inseparable friends.

There is no use in generalizing what women do better than men or vice versa. Any attempt to categorize why women deserve to be leaders based on specific character traits is doomed to find itself impotent, bogged down in stuttering stereotypes.  All that I know is that the strength of an empowered woman is one of the most awe-inspiring things I have ever experienced. There is a kind of freedom and sensitivity and all out bravery that radiates from these fantastic creatures that one cannot help but believe is the secret to radical progress.

The strength of an empowered woman is one of the most awe-inspiring things I have ever experienced.

Unfortunately, it seems that much of America hasn’t realized this yet. As recent statistics have shown, the rise of women to leadership positions in America has stagnated. Only 14.6% of executive leaders in Fortune 500 companies are women. Translated to a boardroom, if there are 12 seats at the table, statistically women will fill only one or two of these seats.  

There are many contributing factors to the shortage of women leaders in America, plenty of them discussed ad nauseam in national media (usually pointing fingers at men or babies), but there is one aspect of the imbalance that I don’t believe has been addressed enough.  Women have formed a habit of shutting each other out.

Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Lean In fame, pointed out a possible reason for this in a recent TED talk: “If you support other women, people around you might notice that YOU are a woman.”

The phrase sounds nonsensical, but how often do we shy away from anything that would draw attention to our gender? Like an 18-year-old swearing she’s 21, we think if we act big and tall and strong that men will skim right over us, not noticing that we aren’t actually one of them. This mentality encourages a scramble to be considered “one of the boys,” as if the complete erasure of femininity is easier than developing real loyalties with the women struggling next to us. But how surprising is this really, when we’re outnumbered literally ten to one?

If we accept the idea that being a woman makes us an unwanted intruder, we are much less likely to reach out and help the next woman up the ladder. The following woman in turn feels no support and is unlikely to help her colleagues up either. The results of this pattern are entire industries filled with women who are isolated, distrusting, and at a disadvantage. Likewise, the failure of women currently in leadership positions to mentor and promote other women helps to perpetuate the idea that there is only room for one woman in the boardroom, one woman at the top.

With these odds, it’s no surprise that many women choose not to put themselves forward, and as a result America risks losing another generation of talent. If we want to see more women leaders, we must be personally prepared to share what successes we have already achieved. We must acknowledge that isolation does not make the strongest executive and that another woman’s accomplishments are not a direct threat to our own. We must learn to see the beauty and strength of our colleagues and to embrace their talents rather than resent them.

We must learn to see the beauty and strength of our colleagues and to embrace their talents rather than resent them.

This is all very well to say, but like any cultural shift, movement happens in personal baby steps much faster than on the world stage. With this in mind, I would encourage us all to ask ourselves (myself most certainly included), what can I do to better encourage and embrace the women around me? Is there an opportunity for me to mentor someone? When was the last time I made a meaningful connection with another woman in my industry?

The deeper and more personal questions are harder to ask, but they may be even more necessary: Is there anything inside me holding me back from supporting women? If so, where does that come from? What am I protecting? Are these fears grounded? If not, how can I be even more generous with my time and resources?

For a long time, I found myself reluctant to support women. I fell into the lie of feeling threatened, just like so many others have. Last fall, while working on a documentary, I had the privilege of interviewing over 20 creative and independent women, all of them blazing their own trails in industries as diverse as art, manufacturing and nuclear power. These women taught me to recognize the vibrancy of a truly empowered life, one filled with an infectious excitement by the accomplishments of its peers.

A life of feeling threatened just can’t compete with that.

The battle for equality is not something that we can win by blending in with men or by toughing it out alone. A new level of camaraderie and openness is required of women everywhere. There IS room for all of us at the top. We can MAKE room.

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