Shine Theory: Women Supporting Women

In business as in life, building each other up helps us both overcome challenges and create opportunity.

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For business owners, having the support of a strong community can mean the difference between success and failure. And for female entrepreneurs, that support often comes from other women. According to a survey by KPMG consultancy firm, nine in 10 working women believe that their own perseverance will accelerate their journey to leadership, but they also overwhelmingly agree that female colleagues, female role models, and professional networks play a critical role in advancing women’s leadership. And some 67 percent of women say that they learned the most important lessons about leadership from other women.

It makes sense. Given that the corporate world has been largely dominated by men, it is women who perhaps can better see the challenges of their peers, and therefore provide the support that is needed. That is, it sometimes takes those on the outside to see what needs to be done. For example, only one in eight board positions globally are held by women, and while it may be very clear to women that more work is needed to promote boardroom diversity, only nine percent of men surveyed by Harvard Business School feel that the inequality needs to be addressed.

“When you shut down vulnerability, you shut down opportunity.” – Gay Gaddis, T3

Men surveyed said that there weren’t enough qualified female candidates to fill the roles. Women, however, argued that diversity at board level was not being given priority, and that networks that resulted in board appointments were male-dominated. As Susan Stautberg, chairwoman of the Women Corporate Directors that supported the survey says: “It’s often hard to see an informal ‘network’ if you are in the middle of it, but you can see it very clearly when you’re on the outside.”

Nurturing Vulnerability

Radha Agrawal is the co-founder of period-proof underwear THINX. She says that it is “vital for women to support women” in business. But support isn’t just about helping women overcome challenges of gender bias and pushing for equality—it’s also about helping them find opportunities. Agrawal says that women can help create an environment that can foster female creativity and productivity by allowing them to be themselves. “[As women] we are often taught to ‘put our masculine on’ in business,” Radha says. “Only recently did I learn that my superpower is in my feminine and in my empathy. A great corporate culture for women is one in which women feel safe, and are able to be vulnerable.”

Essentially, she adds, women can help other women ‘remove the armor’.

Some 67 percent of women say that they learned the most important lessons about leadership from other women.

Being able to be vulnerable is key, particularly for people seeking to be entrepreneurs or business leaders. Gay Gaddis is the founder and CEO of T3, the largest advertising agency in the world owned by a woman. She believes that when you shut down vulnerability, opportunity goes with it. “By definition, entrepreneurship is vulnerable,” says Gay in an interview with researcher and author Brené Brown. “It’s all about the ability to handle and manage uncertainty. People are constantly changing: Budgets change, boards change, and competition means you have to stay nimble and innovative. You have to create a vision and live up to that vision. There is no vision without vulnerability.”

Being vulnerable can be a challenge for many women in business. More than two-thirds of women say they lack the confidence to be a leader, often a result of society and upbringing. In KPMG’s survey of more than 3,000 women, 86 percent recall being taught to be nice to others growing up, while only 44 percent were taught to be a good leader, and 34 percent were taught to share their point of view.

Building a Circle of Trust

That lack of confidence, however, is counteracted when women receive mentoring or support from female leaders. Some 86 percent of women report that just by seeing more women in leadership, they feel encouraged that they can get there themselves.

Women can help other women “remove the armor.”  – Radha Agrawal, THINX

It’s not as though this kind of support and inspiration is without its challenges. In its report KPMG points out that while connecting women is essential for the evolution of female leadership, building a personal circle of trust is not easily accomplished. According to the report, “seven in 10 working women feel a personal obligation to help more women advance in the workplace, but only one-third have learned to leverage and support other female employees.”

That discrepancy is slowly changing as more female leaders and entrepreneurs network, and share their own successes in creating a safe and supportive work environment for women. Agrawal credits her twin sister and THINX CEO and co-founder Mimi for nurturing an environment where vulnerability is possible.

“We have team retreats where everyone writes poems and can share [which] creates a safe space for inter-office community to be built,” says Radha. “There’s a sense of family at the office I’ve not seen anywhere else.”