Sheryl Sandberg’s push to encourage women to work together by celebrating their mentors and paying it forward by helping other women is a refreshing change from what tends to dominate public discussion of women in the workplace. Rather than casting women as inevitable victims or not-so-subtly using the equality banner to advance a liberal political agenda, this effort champions individual empowerment and the benefits of people work together voluntarily. Those are messages we can’t hear too often.
Implicit in videos like this, however, is the idea that women need to be pushed into working together, as if absent such reminders we instinctively see other women as competitors we must defeat. Certainly there are some women who fit the Queen Bee stereotype, but it’s far from clear that women – even in the workplace – are generally more cut throat than men. Studies disagree about whether women are more or less likely than men to try to undermine coworkers of the same sex, but regardless of the data, there is good reason to believe that workplace culture is steadily improving.
In decades past, pioneering career women may have found it hard to overcome institutional sexism in many workplaces and feared being seen as a part of a sisterhood or as sympathizing too much with the concerns of other women. These women may have been less inclined to help another out of self-preservation. Yet as more women and a new generation of men—men who have grown up steeped in women’s empowerment and who want their wives, sisters, and female friends treated with respect—assume greater power within the corporate world as well as in politics and academia, healthier expectations and relationships will become the norm.
Women also have a robust foundation and history of helpfulness to build upon. Women manning the home front over the ages had to turn to each other for help. Particularly since women require support during and after birth, survival depended on learning how to exchange help during these vulnerable times.
These traditions linger today and are part of women’s natural strength. Years ago, a female friend and I took part in a group discussion of about twenty policy analysts, the majority of whom were men. When the issue turned to childcare and family leave policies, one man described his challenge as a divorced father when he had primary care of his children. What would he do, he asked, if his children became ill when he had a can’t-miss business obligation? My eyes met my friends’ across the room. We knew instantly what the answer was: She was my answer. Faced with such a predicament, I would have called her or another female friend who would have come to my rescue.
Women tend to be more comfortable with asking for and giving help than men are, and there is no reason to think that this won’t translate into the corporate world, if it hasn’t already. Of course, there will always be members of both sexes who are only out for themselves and aren’t interested in helping a younger generation rise. But most women and men are better than that. I’ve certainly had amazing women assist me in my life and career, but I’ve had some great male bosses and mentors too. These men were just as supportive, respectful and encouraging as any woman could have been. They deserve recognition too. And young men in our society, trying to build their own careers while juggling family responsibilities and personal issues that can be just as complex and challenging as women’s, also need support and encouragement from willing mentors of both sexes.
I appreciate Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” sentiment and the positive words of the female stars showcased in her video. But I’m tired of having the sexes divided and I’m tired of the presumption that women are somehow less inclined to help each other unless they are urged to with a schmaltzy hashtag campaign. We should all aspire to help those we can—not out of sense of duty to a sisterhood, but out of basic human decency and that good old Golden Rule that holds we should treat others how we wish to be treated, regardless of their sex.