If you don’t design a culture, you get one you don’t want. – Charlie Hughes, former head of Land Rover, North America
I recently interviewed several law firms in connection with one of my consulting projects. After contacting two all-male teams, I spoke to a third, where one of the partners was a woman. Seemingly out of nowhere came the thought – “I don’t want to hire a woman.” I wasn’t concerned about competence. She had come highly recommended, and after speaking to her I was sold.
So why did this thought flash through my mind?
Because I wasn’t sure how I’d interact with her. Given that I can count on one hand the number of female peers I’ve had in the last five years, I haven’t had much practice working with women in a business setting. Worse yet, I was reluctant to share the inevitable attention that comes with being the only woman on a project.
Whoa – stop right there!!
Here I am encouraging the formation of an Intellectual Immigration fund that allows for women to mentor one another, one that is powered by systergy, and “I don’t want to hire a woman?”
As I examined this pesky thought, I remembered a situation in which I’d had similar feelings. We had just hired a new senior analyst at Merrill Lynch. Andrea Weinberg was covering metals and mining stocks and she was much younger than me so I don’t remember feeling competitive. But, I do remember thinking – I don’t know how to interact with her. Do I treat her like one of the guys? Do I reach out and mentor her? What do I do? It seems I had learned the rules of playing on the boy’s playground so well that I had forgotten how to play with the girls.
Which got me to thinking, analyzing, wanting to understand, and realizing that I have two opposing impulses. I deeply care about and want to mentor and empower women. But I also have learned to play in a keenly competitive world where helping someone may mean I put myself at a disadvantage.
The question then is — can I reconcile the two?
We needn’t go much further than our local movie theatre to understand the leadership style that is most valued in our society. Think about Harrison Ford in Star Wars, Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 3. We love the rugged hero – competitive, combative, individualistic.
The traits of these heroes tend to prevail in corporate America, and girls and women are encouraged to adopt these characteristics in order to be successful. However, because women don’t usually instinctively come by these traits, we become even more competitive to prove that we are good enough. So that once we achieve some measure of hard-won success, there can be a piece of us that is reluctant to share our survival techniques (e.g. being the only woman in the room is not only fun, it can actually become a competitive advantage).
But, as demonstrated in the film, based on the book, The Devil Wears Prada, a woman as the rugged, competitive hero doesn’t quite work. Women receive a mixed message: society encourages us to compete like a man, but then condemns us for doing so. In the film, Anne Hathaway’s character is thrown into the competitive world of fashion, and she prevails, only to have her loved ones tell her she’s sold her soul to the devil. Implicit in the story is that for her to get the guy and keep her friends she has to quit the high-powered job. The male hero can prevail AND get the girl. The heroine has to choose: succeed in her ambitions OR get the guy.
My guess is that many women leave the workplace precisely because of this catch-22. It is in large part why I did. A woman enters the business world with her innate leadership style of connecting and caring, but then is encouraged to leave these traits at the door if she wants to succeed. She does so for a time, at least ostensibly, but eventually finds that she values these skills too much to not incorporate them into her work style. She tries to collaborate across departments and mentor junior employees, but her efforts aren’t valued. As a young worker she didn’t have the confidence to go out on her own, but now she does. And so she says: I don’t want this culture any more, I’m going to find a better culture, or create my own.
The irony of this situation is that women are leaving corporate America precisely at a time when our relational skills, those that focus on collaborating and contributing are most in need. Consider Thomas Friedman’s words in the NY-Times bestseller The World is Flat: “Globalization 2.0 was… very vertical—command-and-control oriented
Did I hire the female attorney?
Yes and no. We hired her firm, but as it turns out we will be working with her partner who happens to be a man.
Did I finally mentor the junior analyst at Merrill Lynch?
Not as well as she I would have liked, but after sort of recognizing what was happening, I made a few clunky attempts.
Did I like “The Devil Wears Prada”?
I LOVED the clothes, but found myself a bit disconsolate when Anne Hathaway’s friends were so critical of her – even after she gifted a very expensive bag to her friend, and especially when she quit her job. I know, I know. It wasn’t her dream job. But what if it had been?
Now, back to my earlier question: Can we reconcile the two impulses? Is it possible to find or create a business culture in which women can thrive and feel empowered to use their innate skills and mentor other women?
I’ve bet my Wall-Street salary on it.
Are you already in a business or non-profit situation where you can use your innate skills of connecting, collaborating and mentoring? Tell me more.