In the latest in her series of exclusive pieces for Fortune, Wall Street power player-turned-entrepreneur Sallie Krawcheck writes about why it can be so hard for women to help one another in the business world.
Her piece is an appropriate lead-in Fortune’s May 23rd “Most Powerful Women Evening With…” dinner in New York.—the capstone event for the Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership.
This public-private program brings women from emerging markets to the U.S. to be hosted by senior female executives. It's a perfect example of how we can break down the barriers that stop us from working together—and a testament to the power of women helping women.
It seems that not a day passes without the appearance of some new article or conference or symposium focused on the advancement of women in the workplace. And many of these authors and events promote the same worthy things: Women advocating for women. Women doing business with women. Women building businesses to serve other women.
So, what is it about that message of sisterly solidarity that’s so tricky for us to navigate?
Let’s start with obstacle No. 1: the Queen Bee. This is the senior woman who doesn’t help other women advance, who may even actively kick the ladder out from under her when she reaches a top job. Speak with almost any woman of a certain level of seniority (a glass of wine helps), and you’ll hear a story about her battle with a Queen Bee—one that the more junior woman nearly always loses.
I was “Queen Bee’ed.” I put a great deal of trust in a senior woman in one of my jobs and often went to her for advice. When her counsel felt wrong, I reminded myself how fortunate I was to have her around; if we disagreed, it must be because my instincts were off. That’s what I believed—right up until the day she sat across the table from me when I was taken out of my job.
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And I know it’s not just me: Not two weeks ago, I coached a young woman through a potential showdown with a more senior female exec who felt threatened by the increasing positive attention the younger woman was receiving.
Why does the Queen Bee exist? Some of it might be innate: Recent research suggests that we tend to be more compassionate to others if we ourselves haven’t gone through the same challenges they’re experiencing. If we have our response is likely to be: Buck up, it’s not that bad!
Some women who admit to having played the Queen Bee role tell me they did so because they intuitively knew there were only one or two seats at the leadership table for people outside of the majority. Why? Because there have always been only one or two seats at the table for people outside of the majority. So why help someone else who could potentially take your seat?
Female workers have also historically received signals that advocating for other women isn’t particularly welcome. Indeed, studies have shown that while Caucasian men who advocate for minorities—such as women or people of color—have had their professional reputations enhanced, when those same minorities do the same, their opinions are dismissed.
Ugh. But, wait, there’s more.
Women doing business with women is also a minefield. While in my experience men seem to mix personal relationships and business fluidly, women either keep these worlds separate or can struggle with how to navigate their overlap. I’ve seen it: When I was running Merrill Lynch, my male friends (and even my male-distant-acquaintances) in asset management would regularly ask me if I could help get their products approved for sale at Merrill; my female friends in the industry never—as in, never ever—made that request. And when we did “talk shop,” it wasn’t unusual to hear that when they raised money for their funds, the women decision-makers on the other side of the table were often their toughest critics.
How about women running businesses built for the female market? This can be yet another labyrinth, as I’ve experienced first-hand while launching Ellevest. For some people, the very idea of business “for women” is enough to get their back up. In fact, when we originally tested the idea of a “digital investment platform for women,” some 45% of women we polled said they didn’t like it.
Why? Well, the initial reactions were that “for women” meant that it must be “dumbed down” in some way, that it must be about “remedial financial education,” that it must be a “pink it and shrink it” approach. In sifting through the responses, it felt as though we women have somehow been conditioned that something “for women” is automatically lesser than its male-oriented counterpart.
But when we explained why you need an investment platform for women—that women live longer, earn less, have salaries that peak earlier, and are more risk-aware than men, and need investment plans that take all of that into account—the reactions quickly swung to positive.
So, given all of that, how can we successfully do business with and for other women?
I think the key is to recognize these innate beliefs, examine them, talk about them, discuss them, debate them. This can include conversations that go something like: “I’m not sure if we’re all familiar with the research that says women advocating for other women can be dismissed. Let me tell you why Susan is the right person for this job.” Or, “I’ve always been a bit concerned that mixing business and personal relationships can be tricky, but let me tell you why my asset management offering is a special one.” And finally, “Women are underserved in this segment of the market. So, by definition, what’s out there isn’t working for them. Let me tell you why we think this new approach could.”
And mentor. Mentor other women, to help them make it through the minefield. Mentor men, to raise their awareness of the issues faced by their female colleagues.
All those articles, events, and panels pushing for women’s advancement are good. Expanding those conversations to acknowledge and address the traps that stop women from engaging with other women in the workplace can be even better.
Sallie Krawcheck is the CEO and Co-Founder of Ellevest, a digital investment platform for women. You can request an invitation here. Prior to that, she was CEO of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and Smith Barney. She has been named one of Fast Company’s most creative people in business.