Who is that sad little person? – Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada
It’s no secret that I’m a huge champion of women. And I genuinely believe that the overwhelming majority of us are supportive of one another. But we know: There are still women in business who are not only not helping, they are undermining.
It’s happened to me. When I was out raising money, I encountered a few unsupportive women who didn’t extend any special warmth because we are both women and were, in fact, harder to work with than many men I was pitching to. And it begs the question: what do you do when it’s a woman standing in your way?
So I reached out to my readers (thanks to those of you who answered) to see what experiences other women have had with a boss, investor, or another woman in business who made things worse, not better.
When confidentiality is optional
Caroline had already been running her VC-funded tech company, based in San Francisco, for a few years when she was invited to a female founders breakfast. Because there were so few female founders in tech, she was interested in meeting more women CEOs. One of her investors, also a woman, invited her to this exclusive breakfast and she jumped at the opportunity to make a connection with other women like her.
The host welcomed everyone to the breakfast and explained that she wanted this to be a safe place where women could share their challenges and help one another with ideas and resources. Caroline says, “When it was my turn to speak, I shared the fact that I was facing an issue with my COO and needed to fire him. I explained how hard that was for me since we’d be working together for so long it was almost like a work marriage. I went into great detail and got wonderful advice from the investor and other women who had let senior staff go.”
Three days later, Carol received a letter from the COO’s lawyer accusing her of defamation and demanding that she stop talking about him in public. “I was shocked and a bit scared by threats the lawyer made in the letter. I was able to fire him without a lawsuit but it was an important wake up call about not making too many assumptions about sisterly confidences!”
When you’re the book being judged by its cover
Lydia’s PR Agency in New York was doing amazing work for a logistics company, winning awards, getting lots of national exposure, and building brand awareness. The CEO of the logistics company was transitioning to being the board chair and hired a woman to be his replacement. “I was so excited to meet her,” Lydia recalls, “but it was just awful!”
“The first time I met her, she basically lambasted me and insinuated that the only reason I had their business was because I was sleeping with the CEO. She didn’t ask questions, didn’t get to know me, didn’t think any of the accomplishments our companies had achieved together were important—even though they aligned with the goals set by their team—and couldn’t believe what we were charging the company each month. Mind you, it was $2,500 a month and they were a $12M company. Needless to say, she fired me pretty quickly after that. But she also had the nerve to ask for a refund on the money we had been paid because of our ‘poor performance.'”
The key takeaway? It’s a reminder we are fixing the bike
Most women I have met in my entrepreneurial journeys have an abundance mentality. We want to raise other people up and find win-win situations. But things haven’t always been that way and we are still the pioneers on many fronts in the business world. In the entrepreneurial world, we are fixing the bike while riding it! For example, some of the women I pitched to had come up through the ranks in the investment banking world of the 80s and 90s, which was a highly competitive, often ruthless, male-dominated business culture. To succeed, these women may have had to be even more ruthless than the guys.
While it’s no surprise that they weren’t any more sympathetic or easier to pitch to than the men, I realized I might have had an expectation that women would be more supportive because of their own struggles with glass ceilings and occasional outright discrimination. It can be discouraging and hurtful when they’re not the warm, empathetic people we hoped they would be.
Instead of feeling hurt or bitter when these situations arise, I try to think of another situation where I had to make sense of what felt ‘not right’ – when my son came home from school and told me about a bully at school. I listened and empathized, but then I asked him what he though that boy’s life was like at home. Did the boy’s parents treat him well? Might they yell at him or hit him? He hadn’t thought of it that way. Maybe this boy wasn’t mean after all, maybe he was just repeating behavior he’d seen and experienced.
So instead of saying, “What a raging b!tC#!” and telling twenty girlfriends about the awful woman you met today, consider the environment where she did her professional training and what SHE must have dealt with in order for her “go-to” to be to try to undermine you or shoot you down.
These encounters just double my resolve to mentor the women who reach out and ask me for advice or guidance. It can be tempting to say I don’t have the time, but then I think of the woman who said no, who didn’t support me, or even threw a couple wrenches into the wheels.
So when a woman is the problem, consider moving on and then using that as a reminder to help a woman who may need the advice or resources you can offer. Say yes to that phone call. Answer that email. Have that lunch meeting. Share the one thing that made a difference for you. That is how we will change the entrepreneurial landscape for ourselves and the generation of women entrepreneurs coming after us.
As always, stay brave!