Resolution: Three Ways to Help Other Women While Helping Yourself

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Happy New Year! It’s January 2013, and time to think about the year ahead. What better way to start than with a little history lesson?

Celebrating the New Year on January 1st goes back as far as the ancient Romans. In fact, the Romans had a god dedicated to new beginnings: Janus, which is where we get the name January, today. On the first day of the year, people made offerings to Janus, and, then as now, they spent the day wishing one another health and prosperity for the year ahead.

We can also see the essence of another contemporary New Year’s Day tradition in Janus. In artwork and literature, he is depicted as having two heads, one looking forward and one looking back. Similarly, when we set New Year’s resolutions, we do so looking both forward and to the past.

For decades, professional women have had to deal with the false stereotype that women try to thwart other women’s success or seek to hold one another back at work. We believe its time to move past that tired myth. It’s time to acknowledge that, while some people may work against their colleagues, it’s not a trait specific to or more prevalent in women. In fact – as Catalyst research showed last year – women do help one another. A lot.

Looking back at this old stereotype, and the research showing that it’s just not true, we believe it’s time to move forward. Out with the old biased myths and in with real progress on the image of women in the workplace! We hope you’ll join us in making a Women Helping Women resolution this year.

We want to make it so clear that women are helping each other advance that the queen bee stereotype gets laid to rest for good, and we can move past the negative vision of women perpetuated by the myth. Let’s all make some noise about the ways in which women help other women succeed.

Here are three ways you can help women – and help yourself in the process.

1. Speak Up with Support

Research has shown that women walk a fine line when it comes to self-promotion. Women who speak up about their accomplishments can be deemed conceited or showy in a way that men just aren’t. At the same time, having your accomplishments known is critical for advancement. It’s a double-edged sword that can keep women from achieving success.

In order to counteract this challenge, women can vow to be more vocally supportive of female colleagues in the workplace. Next time a woman says something you agree with in a meeting, say so! Next time a woman on your team does a good job, sing her praises. Next time you come across interesting thought leadership by a woman, remember her name and share her ideas.

Hopefully all our speaking up, and singing praise, and sharing ideas will chip away at the stereotype that women don’t help each other. And hopefully that praise will come back full circle.

2. Say “No, But…”

It can be hard to turn down extra projects or say no to colleagues, but, as Joanna Barsh and Susie Cranston write in their well-known book How Remarkable Women Lead, it’s something we need to do more often.

“Saying no is touchy, because the naysayer has the power. You worry that refusal can damage a valued relationship. Unfortunately, too many women go to great lengths to avoid no. Some say yes when they don’t mean it, others say no in a hostile manner or avoid saying anything at all.”

Barsh and Cranston provide a few strategies for saying no. One of the most interesting is: “Follow up with an alternative that gives both of you a chance to move on.”

Taking on stretch assignments, speaking on panels, hosting networking events – these are all things that will help your career. But sometimes you just don’t have the bandwidth, and you have to say no. Rather than stopping at no, let’s start saying “No, but I know someone who may be interested.”

Nominating another woman can help you move forward with your own plans and activities, and it can also give her a boost of confidence and a chance to shine. If you have to turn down a career development opportunity, make sure you recommend a woman who may benefit from participating.

3. Sponsor Your Way to the Top

Finally, the idea of sponsorship has gotten a lot of attention in recent years – a sponsor is a senior person who “has your back” at your company. They can nominate you for stretch roles or special assignments, and support you behind the scenes in the meetings you’re not invited to. In return, you come through for that person and live up to the reputation they’ve helped you build.

In fact, in December, Catalyst launched a new project designed to sponsor more women into board seats. The Catalyst Corporate Board Resource will contain the names of board-ready women who have been nominated by CEOs whose companies are members of organization.

It’s sponsorship, says Brande Stellings, Vice President of Corporate Board Services at Catalyst, and it’s also designed to draw attention to the iniquity that persists in the gender make-up of corporate boards. Women held only 16.6 percent of board seats in the US in 2012.

“We wanted to provide an opportunity for CEOs to really make a difference for the powerful women they know. The CEOs endorse the women they can vouch for, who are ready to serve on a board and ready to serve now,” she explained. “We also wanted to show that there’s no supply problem. The issue is not that there aren’t enough qualified women to serve on boards. We hope companies will see this as a peer to peer network that they can consult when they have their own board seats to fill.”

Even if you’re not a CEO, you can be a sponsor – you can help junior women advance while helping yourself advance too. “A sponsor is someone who has clout and is in a position to make a difference for someone else,” Stellings explained. If there’s a high performing junior woman on your team who you can encourage or nominate for a project, take the initiative and sponsor her.

And the fact is, as Catalyst research shows, sponsoring another person helps you build clout too. “There’s some research showing it’s a virtuous circle in terms of paying it forward,” Stellings said.

The organization’s 2011 report “Sponsoring Women to Success” suggested that being a sponsor gives you “reputational capital” – you become known as the kind of person who can identify talented people and help them advance. One of the key steps to becoming a leader is gathering followers – and sponsoring quality people is a sure way to do that.