Solidarity Wins the Day
Taking stock of where we are now and where we're headed
Watching the courage and selflessness demonstrated by the people of Ukraine over the last few weeks has got me thinking about the power of solidarity. When circumstances suddenly and drastically upend our lives, we have the potential to move quickly past whatever has divided us and focus our energies on what unites us. When this happens, social transformation can occur overnight.
But dramatic shifts, with roots in adversity, can also take place over time, leading to changes in our social world that are no less profound. This is what I have witnessed from my vantage point on front lines of women’s leadership over the last 35 years. Women in the workplace, in the whole realm of public life, have reacted to adversities as varied as the 2008 financial crisis, the abuses that led to #MeToo, and the challenge of the pandemic, by supporting one another, lifting one another up and bringing others along with them.
The rise in solidarity that I’ve witnessed among women has also spawned increasing solidarity between men and women, especially as we work to reconfigure the workplace to accommodate financial turmoil and the blowback from the Great Resignation. How this situation came to be is worth noting as we mark International Women’s Month in this solemn yet inspiring late winter of 2022.
Today’s workplace is no longer the lonely, almost foreign turf many women felt it to be in the past. The isolation that could make pursuing a career feel unrewarding in the 1990s and early 2000’s — not to mention previous decades — has given way to structures of mutual support. Many of these began as grass roots efforts started by small groups of women in companies, communities or sectors that over time became integrated into the mainstream culture.
My experience bears this out. I often worked with these women’s leadership initiatives and networks back when they were still in the early stages and had tiny budgets and almost no support. As a result, their activities were often limited to brown-bag lunches or off-the-shelf trainings that offered little follow-through and received only lip-service support from senior leaders.
In addition, those rare women who did ascend through the ranks at that time were often reluctant to participate in their company’s women’s programs, which female coworkers took as proof that senior women had no interest in helping others along.
Because I helped design many such initiatives, I was often charged with trying to enlist the participation of these senior women. The majority who declined usually noted that they had “worked hard to be seen as a leader, not a woman.” They feared that lending support would undermine their hard-won credibility.
In fact, for years, women were widely assumed to be in fierce competition with one another. In my experience the “women are women’s worst enemies” trope has been vastly exaggerated, especially in the media, where it was a popular narrative until quite recently. It used to be almost impossible to attend a women’s gathering without someone asking, “Why don’t women support other women?”
Of course, men rarely torment themselves by asking why other men don’t support them, nor do they question why they are in competition with one another. So to some extent the question reflects unrealistic expectations if not outright sexism.
Still, a kind of queen bee mentality did sometimes prevail in organizations where women held very few positions of influence or power. This was of course mainly due to the fact that tokenism creates a scarcity mind-set.
But now, as larger numbers of women have ascended the ranks, the competitiveness driven by scarcity has steadily diminished. Obviously the overall numbers, while growing, remain problematic— only 8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, etc.— but in my experience the numbers tell only half the story. And while the quantitative half is important, the qualitative half is as well.
That story is one of women driven by adversity banding together and helping each other out, in turn creating some big, culture-shaking changes. For one thing, women have gained enormously in self confidence (more about that next week). Another is that women’s pursuit of solidarity has persuaded many men to become allies.
Despite widespread speculation, for example, that #MeToo would discourage men from serving as mentors and sponsors for women, I have mostly seen the opposite happen. Many men I’ve spoken with were astonished to learn how pervasive the harassment of female colleagues is and how much repeat offenders have gotten away with. Rather than scaring these men off, the discussion has made them eager to help change the culture.
Male participation in female programs and events has also changed dramatically. When I delivered a recent workshop at a huge construction industry conference in Las Vegas on the internal leadership barriers that women face, I was astonished to find that nearly 70 percent of the attendees at my session were men. When I asked the group why had they signed up for my workshop, I was told that lot of the best talent is female, and companies can’t compete without talent. “If we don’t get better at engaging and retaining women, our businesses won’t survive.” said one attendee. “So please don’t waste our time telling us why supporting women is important. Just help us get better at doing it.” This pragmatic, unthreatened view of women’s contribution as absolutely necessary is exactly what had always been missing, and is exactly what the solidarity movement has borne.
These displays of solidarity, their origins rooted in adversity, give us hope by showing that when we band together we can accomplish extraordinary things. We can do so over time, as has happened with women over the last few decades. Or seemingly overnight, as with those facing dire hardship in Ukraine.