March is Women Helping Women Month

Business meetingBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Since the 1980s, we’ve designated March as the month when we celebrate women’s history, to reflect on how far we’ve come, and honor those women who’ve helped us get here. This month on The Glass Hammer, we’re examining one of the most critical factors in our progress up to now and beyond: women helping women.

As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s oft-repeated quote goes: “I think there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” This month, we want to focus on the ways women have reached out and pulled other women up. It’s time to celebrate those women who have taken a chance on us, lent an ear, lent advice, spoken up for us behind closed doors, pushed for our promotions, and supported us at the table of power. And it’s also time to pay that forward.

Besides the warm fuzzy feeling you get from helping someone else, helping other women up the ladder can help you build stronger relationships and navigate your own career more strategically – no matter what your level in your organization. Here’s how.

Building Relationship Capital

The notion of being a sponsor has been described as having reliable folks “in pocket.” Who’s your go-to person when the chips are down? Who do you then advocate for when they come through for you in a tight spot?

Having a protégé can be as beneficial for a sponsor as it is for the protégé herself.

Heather Foust-Cummings, PhD, Senior Research Director at Catalyst, and lead author of the organization’s report, “Sponsoring Women to Success,” explained that when you support someone who does good work, it makes you look good too. She told us, “The sponsor can gain reputational capital by sponsoring someone who does well and becomes a leader. The sponsor gains the reputation of someone who can spot good talent and advance them.”

Additionally, she said, “Sponsors themselves benefited in two important ways. First, our research showed that sponsors really benefited from the access to information they gained into different levels in the organization, from understanding the culture of the organization.”

By becoming better connected with individuals at different levels in the company, those at the top get a more complete picture of what’s going on, and become better leaders.

The other benefit, she said, was the sense of fulfillment sponsors received. She explained, “It’s the deep sense of personal and professional satisfaction they gained from being an advocate for someone and watching their career grow.”

Being an Authentic Role Model

“Specifically in high tech, there aren’t tons and tons of women,” said Linda Drumright, CEO of DecisionView, a web company in the life sciences sector. “We don’t advocate for ourselves as much as we should. I think we don’t support ourselves as well as we could in saying ‘this gal is ready for a promotion.’ I think the few that are here should give back.”

She added, “It is on our shoulders, the people who can give back, to do that.”

One way Drumright gives back is by mentoring. She said she’s mentored many people through the years, and she didn’t realize she was particularly adept at it until former mentees kept coming back for advice – even a decade later. The key, she said, is being authentic.

She explained, “It’s not just about giving advice – it’s about asking questions and sharing yourself in a vulnerable way that opens up a connection, rather than being purely prescriptive.”

A member of Menttium, an organization that pairs up mentors and mentees, Drumright said she also benefits from the mentoring relationship. She said, “One of the things that mentoring gives back to me is relearning challenges I had earlier in my career and having empathy for that. Leveraging that recall the mentee is giving me is an important thing.”

Some of the most valuable advice Drumright said she could share is “not to get stuck on incorrect thinking.” She explained, “Whether it’s your personal life, relationships, your job, or managing people, know when you’re stuck in incorrect thinking – and figure out a way to break yourself out of it. What’s the worst that could happen?”

For a successful mentoring partnership, Drumright advises mentees to be mindful of their mentor’s time and be prepared. “Use the mentor’s time really well. Come prepared for the meeting with an agenda and questions you want to talk about. It’s not just chit-chat. Be really brutally honest about where you are – it’s a safe place.”