How Friendship Holds Women Back in Their Careers—and What They Can Do About It
Almost 15 years ago, I became Cisco’s vice president of global intellectual property, a position held by only a handful of women at the time. Soon thereafter, I co-founded ChIPsNetwork.org to connect women in technology, law, and policy for the purpose of helping build bigger books of business. Over the years, we hosted countless events and brought together thousands of smart, ambitious women. We marched against injustices side by side. We swapped maternity clothes. We made friends. But we didn’t make business deals.
After interviewing many dozens of women to find out why, I realized that despite the cultural moment female friendship is currently enjoying, the same strength, intensity, and deep connections being celebrated was also setting up a false dichotomy between personal relationships and the transactionality of business.
Women told me that when they asked a friend for business, they feared it would damage their personal relationships, took rejection personally, and became gun-shy about making another pitch. Even well-qualified women who had no qualms about asking (and were quite adept at it) were often met with avoidance, a brush-off, or no reply at all.
Women who received an ask from a friend said they didn’t expect their friends to hit them up for business and when they did, it sometimes caused an unspoken tension that dampened their enthusiasm for the relationship. Some even began to doubt the true motives behind the friendship in the first place. Others went so far as avoiding those who might ask for business later.
Women have fought for decades to overcome biases and attain the highest ranks in corporate America. In 2017, only 5.1% of CEOs and just 11.5% of other top executives in S&P Composite 1500 companies were women, according to Pew Research. To achieve success and influence in business, it still comes down to who generates the most revenue. Doing deals with your buddies is a time-honored way to build your book of business. But women tend to struggle when it comes to mixing money and friendship, cutting themselves off from one of the most effective tactics in the constant struggle to get ahead. So why is it that we’re so hesitant to do deals with our friends—the very people we know have our backs?
As organizational psychologist Ronald Riggio puts it: “Men’s friendships are often based on shared activities (e.g., poker or golfing buddies), and are more ‘transactional’—reciprocating favors and working together on projects. In other words, men share activities, women share feelings.” Male colleagues I spoke with confirmed they rarely talk about feelings with friends. One remarked, “When you take away feelings, that leaves you with talking about things like sports and work.” They also noted that it’s pretty much expected you’ll do business with your buddies and that the trust provides an advantage in ensuring success on both sides.
Women’s friendships tend to become deeply personal and intimate very quickly. Trying to make the leap directly from intense personal relationships to business can feel abrupt and awkward to both sides. So the very thing about female friendships that is deservedly celebrated may also be holding us back from generating vital business with each other.
I want to be clear: I am not saying that women need to be more like men. Rather, women can take the depth of emotion, closeness, and personal bonds that underpin traditional female friendship and channel them into the transactionality that drives business success. I do observe some women, typically more senior and established, who are able to successfully transact business with friends. Here are some things they do:
- Ask how you can help every time you meet with a woman—socially or professionally. Say, “Tell me two specific things I can do to help you” and then follow through. The directness tends to elicit a specific, actionable response, and averts well-intentioned but vague promises to follow up.
- Recommend friends to friends. Women are often more comfortable bragging about their friends’ accomplishments than mentioning their own (no surprise given that women are often dinged for being self-promoting when they do talk about themselves). Let’s use this to our advantage by more intentionally promoting each other as experts, leaders, and business resources.
- Seek women out—don’t wait to be approached. When you have a business need, seek out women and ask them to come in and pitch. Even if you don’t have an immediate need, proactively reach out and ask how you can help. You will often find you can make introductions to others who do. Ask your friends to recommend other women, which will bring in those who might be outside of your regular network.
- Take the meeting and play matchmaker. Whenever you receive a reasonably “good” ask, take the meeting, especially if it’s from a friend. I always learn something from these contacts, and they often pay unexpected benefits down the road. Even if you don’t have a pressing need, introduce her to a relevant contact in your network who does. It’s immensely satisfying to make a successful match, and both sides will remember it and work to reciprocate.
Recognize, though, that it’s a two-way street—women need to be proactive too about asking. This can admittedly be hard. Even those powerful senior women who regularly reach out to help other women still pause when it comes to asking friends. One particularly well-connected, hard-charging woman admitted to me, “I default to only helping women and never asking, since I know it is so awkward for them and me. The result is that I mainly get help from men who trust me and who don’t get confused.”
Women have a long way to go to achieve equality in corporate America. Every effort we make to help each other, small or large, moves us forward. Start by reaching out to three women today and saying, “Tell me two concrete things I can do to help you.” And if you are attempting to scaffold from a personal relationship to a business one, consider addressing the elephant in the room head-on and acknowledge the awkwardness that can arise when you begin to do so.