Q: I am a fierce women’s advocate. But sometimes I feel pressure to support women who don’t meet my standards of competence or behavior. How do I manage this—or should my support be unconditional?
A: The desire for gender equality is a historical aspiration woven deep into the fabric of our society. The emotion and energy generated in its pursuit has ebbed and flowed throughout time … and the road that has led us to where women stand today in society … personally and professionally has indeed been a rocky one.
We are currently at a moment in time and in history, where the women’s movement is once again front and center with increased awareness and building momentum. Fueled by courage in the face of political and corporate controversy, women are banding together in greater numbers to press for equal pay, equal opportunity and equal rights. And working to dismantle the subtle … and not so subtle discriminations that can, and often do compromise a career.
One critical component to the success of these causes is support for women … by women. But in times past, this support was not as ubiquitous as it should have been. Jealously, fear and a finite number of seats at the top compromised a more robust level of support from within the gender.
Today, support for women by women has greatly increased. This is attributable to several factors including: more women in the workforce, changing cultural views, increased power, leverage, money and opportunity; evolving laws, more male support; and a greater number of seats at the table … to name a few. In fact, the female voice is so strong that some women can feel pressure to provide their unconditional support no matter who the woman, no matter what the cause, no matter what the reason. Is this the right course? If you are a “fierce women’s advocate,” are you somehow required to provide your unconditional support for all female professionals?
If you wish to provide support and advocate only for professionals whom you believe are virtuous representatives for professional women, then do it! This does not mean you have to knock down or work against those who do not meet your standards. It does not mean that you have to do or say anything negative about such an individual. But it does mean that you should not be fearful or feel pressured to support someone you don’t care much about. There’s nothing wrong with setting a high bar and keeping it there. In fact, there’s everything right about it.
So from a practical perspective, how does one manage such a delicate situation when it occurs? If you find yourself in another internal or external predicament and do not want to provide support, you have a few choices:
Refrain From Participation.
Award nominations, events, comments for reporters, cocktail chatter, endorsement inquiries, references, recommendations. These are typical situations where formal and informal “support” can be provided for a professional. If you are not on board, politely refrain from participating affirmatively or passively—and always take the high road when doing it. Of the many loud voices in the room, it’s OK if yours is not one of them at this time.
Support The Cause Not The Person.
You may not be a fan of the person, but if you are passionate about the cause then focus your energy, communications and support on the greater good. By focusing on the issue(s) at hand and guiding your actions and messaging accordingly, you’ll feel more comfortable about the support you do give … and why.
I would love to say that the days of women undermining other women are over. But they are not. Bad behavior is still out there—and when you encounter it, it’s perfectly reasonable … and justifiable to hold the person accountable. There are varying degrees of bad behavior from annoying to outright wrong. And each person has her or his threshold for action. If you’ve crossed yours, it’s OK to speak up. But remember to keep it productive and professional. If we keep the bar high and hold others accountable, everyone lifts their game. And that can do wonders for a cause.
At the end of the day, your actions are your choice. Not Alice’s or Sue’s or Jack’s or Larry’s … or mine. They are yours and yours alone. So if you want to support female professionals unconditionally, then do it. If you don’t … because certain individuals do not meet your standards of professional excellence … then don’t. But whatever you choose, do it thoughtfully, virtuously and be true to your own values. Then own it.
Throughout our long history, women have fought tirelessly for equality and the freedom to make their own independent choices. Each day we are presented with the opportunity to be empowered and choose our own paths. But these choices are often taken for granted in today’s world.
I understand your predicament here. But ultimately how you proceed in tackling it is your choice to make, and not to be governed by pressure or “shoulds.” This is what it means to be free. So as you assess your options, move in a direction that resonates most with your values and inspires you to continue to support and advocate for professional women in the best way possible.