Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Open Season

Earlier this week, Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times wrote a mean-spirited and apparently unprovoked article attacking both Janet Hanson, the founder of 85 Broads (the global women's network named after the Goldman Sachs office at 85 Broad Street in New York, where Hanson worked), and women's networks in general. Kellaway's article arose from Katie Couric's recent interview of Hanson, and Kellaway also took a few swipes at Couric while she was at it. Leaving aside the bullying and cheap shot aspects of Kellaway's article, and rising above beating her at her own game by taking the cheap shots back at her that she left wide open in her article, I want only to say that I continue to be dismayed that women can be so hard on one another.

There's a scene in A Merger of Equals where Jane and her friend, Liz, talk about how bewildering and sad it is that women are so often combatants warring over what is the "right" way to be a woman instead of the natural allies we should be. I'm older than Jane and Liz, and I've been marveling in a dismayed way about this for years. Whether it's a patronizing and patriarchal desire to define women (the subject of a previous post) or an attempt to aggrandize or justify one's own lifestyle by denigrating different choices, it seems there is always someone around to take shots at women. We have enough to deal with given how the world works; seems to me we shouldn't be making it harder for one another.

Slamming women's networks, as Kellaway's article does, serves no purpose other than to hurt women - by potentially turning both women who need it and women who can provide it away from the support that networks can offer, by pandering to people who are intimidated and threatened by aggregations of women, and by perpetuating the notion that women are nothing but feral cats always at each other's throats. Of course we have to stand on our own feet, as Kellaway writes, but no woman has to (or should) be an island. Being allies and helping one another succeed, which men have done for centuries, is absolutely essential to achieving equality of opportunity and status and also to feeling enfranchised and powerful, one of the key ingredients of achieving success. We should absolutely aggregate for the purpose of supporting and learning from each other. And, even more absolutely, we should stop taking shots at one another. Cheap or otherwise.

Here's Kellaway's article:
Let's stand on our own feet - not other women's shoulders
By Lucy Kellaway
Published: February 26, 2007
Two weeks ago a middle-aged brunette called Janet Hanson was interviewed on the CBS evening news by Katie Couric, the middle-aged, blonde newscaster.
The item was all about women helping each other to be more successful and its focus was a network founded eight years ago by Ms Hanson called 85 Broads. The name is a laboured pun on the HQ address of Goldman Sachs where she used to work, and initially the network consisted of her "gal pals" from there. Now it is much broader and includes 16,000 women of the "most exceptional women on the planet" who are "going to be the greatest leaders the world has ever seen". They are going to be this by networking, which, says Ms Hanson is all about learning how to "stand on each other's shoulders".
Over a pot of tea, Ms Hanson told Ms Couric her own story: how depression and then breast cancer had spurred her on to help other women. The camera kept flitting to Ms Couric, nodding empathetically. "So, this isn't just about careers, it's about how to cope with - life?" she volunteered, misting up, thus giving a whopping, prime-time plug for Ms Hanson and her network. Yes, its founder whispered, voice hoarse with gratitude.
Back on the 85 Broads website, it's payback time, and now Ms Couric is riding on Ms Hanson's shoulders. "Katie Couric ROCKS! . . . " writes Ms Hanson in her blog. "She's an incredibly warm and beautiful woman . . . she deserves the unanimous support of smart women all over the world." She notes that Ms Couric had been getting some stick for bad ratings on her new evening slot and urged all members: "IF EVERYONE TIVO'S THE CBS EVENING NEWS WE CAN MAKE KATIE NUMBER ONE!".
The image of these women on each other's shoulders makes me want to tell them to get down at once, before they do someone an injury. Why does Katie deserve the unanimous support of all smart women? Surely she deserves to present the CBS evening news only if she is good at doing that, and if viewers like watching her. Otherwise someone else should be asked to do it instead.
And why is Ms Hanson allowed on national television if she cannot say anything more sensible than: "Women cannot succeed unless they leverage each other's massive intellectual firepower"?
The trouble is that the merest mention of women's networks seems to turn intelligent women into politically correct, acquiescent fools.
This is because the very idea of these networks is so contradictory. Do they exist to give women opportunities not allowed to men? To do so is discrimination, and there are (rightly) laws against that. But if the networks don't help you get jobs then why would you want to join one? I have been to quite a few women's networking events and can tell you that they are both dull and tense.
The prevailing impression is similar to ante-natal classes, though without the promise of a baby at the end of it. There is the same supportive we're-in-this-together atmosphere that is made less supportive both by being compulsory and by the competition that lurks not far beneath the surface. Successful professional women want to compete with other successful women. There is nothing wrong with that. There is something wrong with pretending they don't.
I had a long chat with a friend last week who is a member of a senior women's professional network. She described it as a witches' coven, where the air was filled with bonhomie laced with spite. At the crack of dawn the next day she sent me a panicky e-mail begging me not to quote her - fearing that her fellow networkers might do something truly nasty to her in the girls' toilets.
Perhaps it is the tension, this fear of offending the sisterhood, that makes women say such daft things about these networks. Visit the website of WACL - an exclusive club of 140 of the most senior women in advertising and communications in London. On its website is a little box that allows you to select the background colour on the website - pink? apple green? - presumably so that it can match your handbag.
"WACL puts you in touch with wise and sassy women who are as happy to share their experiences as their lip gloss," says Sarah Gold, MD of an ad agency.
Not only is the word "sassy" loathsome, but sharing lip gloss is not a good idea as it spreads germs. And as for sharing experience, I fancy that can be overrated, too.
Yet it is this sharing of experience that is the stated benefit of most female network clubs. Endlessly women are expected to want to hear the career histories of successful women, and to learn from them. "Attending events like this are terrific opportunities to learn and grow personally and professionally," goes a testimonial on the 85 Broads website.
But I've listened to many women's experiences at formal events and I've never grown an inch in any direction. They are worth hearing if told in a funny and interesting way, which they generally aren't. The female role models who do these things all the time have recounted their stories so often that any truth or freshness is long gone.
Yet such is the appetite to hear women's experience that even I sometimes get asked to speak at these events. I usually tell them the truth: that my gender has been a great blessing to me in my career. Being born female was the single smartest thing I ever did. They don't seem to agree, but as they are supportive women they smile politely and scurry off home afterwards.


Anonymous said...

Women's affinity groups are still a necessary component to retention of women. They also have become important tools in attracting clients and talent. The facts support both of these statements. They serve to establish community, reduce isolation, encourage mentoring, create safe environments for skill developments and allow the leverage of critical mass of women within an organization. If you, as a woman, choose not to take advantage, so be it. But why do you believe you have the right to make that choice for me or others? My suggestion is that Ms. Kelleway use her time in a more effective fashion, like exploring why women's affinity groups are still so valuable. That's a topic worthy of some press.

Anonymous said...

I find it sad that Ms. Kellaway would express such disdain for women standing on each other’s shoulders. Does she actually believe that she got where she is without the help or success of other women? Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are given the opportunities that we get because of the groundwork and protests of our ancestors and those coming before us that gave us a voice in the wilderness.

It is unfortunate that Ms. Kellaway does not see the value of women networking and to suggest that some woman telling her success story never did anything for her. Maybe she is the exception instead of the rule. For many of us, we find motivation and a vision for what is possible based on other women’s success. Maybe Ms. Kellaway got back from the network exactly what she gave, nothing! That’s how it usually works, if you expect nothing, the universe will support you and meet your expectations.

I support, Ms. Hanson and Ms. Couric in their opinion and support for women supporting women. If we don’t support each other and act as if there is not enough to go around, we will create a hostile and unhealthy environment for us all. I suggest that we start with ourselves and be the change that we want to see in others. Keep networking and keep sharing, there is plenty to go around. Find the network that fits your needs and don’t stop at the first one you find. Keep going, you will know when it’s right for you. One size does not fit all, but it is still a great operating principle, regardless of what Ms. Kellaway has to say.

Anonymous said...

I firmly believe that the most formidable opponents women face in their struggle to discover who they are, and then succeed, are other women. Particularly those women who insist that one stereotype must be abandoned in favor of another. I am amazed by the number of women who (in my lifetime) have carelessly embraced all of the same pursuits that for decades and centuries have compromised the quality of men's lives and taken them to an early grave. Of course, they also are led to believe that they need an SUV and a Blackberry. The mystery is that women have had ample time to observe mindless men as we were convinced that we must work 80-100 hours/week, acquire a mortgage payment that was just beyond our means, and spend the little free time we managed to salvage watching basketball on the television or playing golf. Women seem to be capable of so much more! It does not appear to me that men are driving these women to insanity. It is other women.