work life

Where Are All The Mentors?

I love people of my gender.  I love being a woman.  I listen to the original cast album of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and belt out ‘I’m a Woman’ with pride of ownership (as a side note, I never liked Helen Reddy’s  ‘I Am Woman’..what can I say?  It’s a taste thing).  I applaud our ability to balance conflicting priorities, the way we check in with each other when someone is having a tough time and how we ask good questions.  I am constantly impressed with how hard we’re willing to work on our relationships, career paths and still remember birthdays.  I like how we think and how we love.  And I’m calling us out.  Meet me at Starbucks at noon.

What is it about women at work?  Where are the mentors for young women?  Why aren’t we bringing our younger colleagues along with the same commitment with which we focused our efforts on our own growth?  Yes, this is a generalization – don’t get defensive if it doesn’t resonate with you.  Nonetheless, I submit that there are fewer successful women directing their attention to those just beginning their climb up the ladder than there are women who will strategically place the heel of their stiletto on those manicured hands if they get too close.  Hattie McDaniel once said that “…there are only eighteen inches between a pat on the back and a kick in the rump”.  I watched this happen all the time at the firm.  Women protesting the paucity of female leaders, decrying the absence of opportunities and protecting their areas of expertise with the ferocity of a nursing lioness.  Classic approach avoidance  – ‘come here – no, go away’.

I get it – perhaps it took more work for us to get ahead.  Perhaps we escalated professionally without the guiding hand of another woman and with a man’s hand groping our butts.  It can make a person jaded, territorial and defiant – all with good reason – but why do other women bear the brunt?  I have had a supervisor harass me sexually and watched as women in more powerful positions than mine shake their heads with disgust, pat my shoulder with sympathy and do nothing to help me stop it.   Ironically, the person who took action was a man.  My best professional role models and most ardent mentors were men.  I have been honored to work with some of the brightest women in the legal profession and marvel at their passivity when asked to share their experience in a meaningful way with younger women.

I think there are a lot of reasons for this, including our fundamental ambivalence with competition.  When competing with men, the permission is overt and our actions will parallel theirs.  Men are comfortable with competition and reflect that comfort from an early age.  In these situations we can explicitly acknowledge that regardless of how level the playing field may or may not be, we will be formidable opponents, and will go toe-to-toe to capture the flag.  We aren’t comfortable competing with other women – there’s too much wrapped up in the fine print of the rules.  We are supposed to ‘play nicely’ even if we don’t like our playmates.  Girls clamor for friendship and affiliation.  They want to be part of an accepted group, regardless of their feelings for these cohorts.  Thus the schadenfreude of a homecoming queen stepping on her dress and tearing it, the most popular girl being ‘outed’ as a bitch.  As much as we feel for their exposure, we love it.  So when we share a professional arena, we compete with a complicated, implicit agenda.  We want to win and don’t necessarily trust that another woman can complement our efforts without simultaneously diminishing us.  We embrace our colleagues with our fingers crossed behind their backs.

We can and should do more.  At the end of the day. wouldn’t we want this for our daughters, nieces, grandchildren?  To benefit from the guidance offered by successful, experienced women who have climbed the ladder and know where the stress points are, which areas require gloves to avoid getting splinters and what to do when one slips and falls (as we all inevitably have).  Can we move past our history to enhance another woman’s future?  We can – we’re that good.  We’re women.