I listened as the two senior executive women chatted over lunch. One retired, the other a senior vice president. They talked about dogs and vacations and travel. In fact, I picked up that they have actually hosted one another at their respective homes for weekend escapes. Clearly, I was witnessing an intimate conversation. And I was delighted to see two senior female leaders act so kindly to one another.
You might presume I was eavesdropping, but I was actually at the table as well. I had just helped a small team of senior executives, including these two high-profile ladies, showcase a special leadership message in front of an audience of 120 for Women’s History Month. To celebrate, we all went out to eat, and thus I was able to enjoy their company in a more light-hearted setting.
In some ways, I felt like I was a kid sitting at the adult table. These leaders have a solid 20 years on me, and our life experiences are dramatically different. Their children are out of the home, they travel internationally and their days are spent in high-profile meetings, setting strategy and direction for one of the largest brands in the world. I, on the other hand, am firmly planted in middle management. I’m juggling the lives of three young kids. I float between meetings and doing. I’m in the weeds.
Many of these differences I cannot immediately change. Advancement could come in time, kids will grow up, roles with evolve.
But I can start modeling their behavior. Of all the stories shared, what I really took away from the lunch was how these women treated one another. They were kind and cordial, supportive and real.
So often in middle management, I see female managers tear each other down with a fierce competitive spirit. I see women avoid inviting certain women to meetings, simply because they feel threatened. I hear women criticize and gossip. I observe female peers go out of their way to ignore or hurt.
Why do we do this? What’s up with the petty bullshit and “mean girl” antics? What would happen if we behaved more like these two senior executives, who clearly rose to the top for a reason?
Of course not every female in middle management is “mean.” I have many wonderful and trusted colleagues – both male and female. Still, there are “those women” who expend so much energy tearing one another down, instead of building each other up.
Sometimes, and I see this in the motherhood sphere as well, we try so hard to be perfect, super, flawless. At work, we do so much to “get a seat at the table” that we are afraid to mess up.
What if my idea is not as good as hers?
What if I’m rusty in analytics?
What if I make a mistake?
Rather than pull together and leverage one another’s strengths, we instead try to appear as if we “know it all” and certainly “know more than her.”
It’s exhausting, but many women somehow think this strategy works.
But does it?
I wish I had just a little more time with the senior executives I lunched with this week. I’d ask them if they were always so supportive of others, especially their female peers competing for the few coveted leadership spots. How did they rise above the “mean girl” antics? How did they learn their fellow “sisters” could in fact be their best advocates?
I am lucky to have worked for some fabulous female leaders in my own career, and I’ve learned so much from witnessing how they treated and supported others. I’ve also learned from the “mean girls.” It takes so much energy to be one, and the final product always suffers.
Perhaps my daughter’s generation will be different. I hope so. Because really, if the “mean girl” antics continue, all women lose.