Must it Be Lonely at the Top? Creating Better Support Networks for Female Leaders

The journey to the top of a profession is often accepted as being a lonely one, particularly for women. It is one that involves fighting the status quo in small and big ways every day at every step of the way. The perception of the unapproachable, uncompromisingly independent woman going it alone persists in popular culture, and still permeates into real life. Rather sadly, a detailed study by HBR of female CEOs across industries found that most respondents expected little or no support both at home and at work, relying only on themselves to get to where they wanted to be.

Is this the harsh reality, and are there actions ambitious women (and men) can collectively take to change the picture? Obelisk Support places great importance on providing a support network for our consultants, and seeking opportunities to connect with leaders and mentors in the legal field. We believe no woman should have to go it alone while carving out a successful career in law. Here is some advice on creating better support networks for aspiring female leaders.

Advocate for Yourself – and Others

Forming a network that supports your efforts to move up and provide greater value to an organisation and/or clients often means speaking up that little bit louder about what you are doing, rather than waiting and hoping for people to notice and to care. We are all too often reluctant to self-promote – a trait that is more likely to be seen as negative in a woman than it would be from a man. However, female CEOs interviewed by HBR described how self promotion coupled with internal acceptance of their leadership ambitions ‘unlocked their ability to take charge of their own development: seeking out stretch assignments, learning on the job, and learning from the people in their networks.’

Of course, it is easier said than done. If you find the idea difficult, one place to start is with your social media posts. See it not as self advocacy or promotion, but as your story to tell. Sharing the highs and lows of your career journey within an online network can help you become more comfortable about selling your strengths and your ambitions in the workplace.

An important part of advocacy is holding up other people as examples and supporting them too. That can include people you work with, people you know, or people outside of your circle whose work you admire. The more you make a habit of talking about the efforts of others, people are more likely to take interest in and rally round those of your own.

Nurture Informal Support Networks

Your career support network must not simply consist of professional associates – your family and friends also play a significant part. Aoife Flood, Senior Manager of the Global Diversity and Inclusion Programme at PriceWaterhouseCoopers identifies support networks as a series of circles – personal support and advocacy as the widest circle, then professional and workplace, with you the self-advocating individual at the centre.

As a mother and a member of a family or partnership, you cannot get to where you want to be in isolation. Sometimes, this will involve difficult conversations at home about expectations and roles within the family environment. Sharing the emotional labour load is a challenge for many professional women, so be honest about what support you need. Outside of the family, talk to your friends about ambitions and life goals on a regular basis – when you are going through a difficult patch you need the people who know you best to reaffirm your aspirations and offer an outside view on what can help you get there.

Ask Directly for Help

Women in male-dominated spaces such as law are often so used to being grateful for what they have managed to do, in spite of the obstacles, that they forget that they have a right to lay out their long term goals and to tell people what they would really like to achieve beyond what they have already accomplished. They also fear that asking for support may be perceived as weakness or entitlement. But those who have succeeded in their career path didn’t get there without asking others for assistance – from departmental improvements to formal or informal mentorship, sometimes the support is there waiting for us, we just need to take a deep breath and ask for it. That’s a sign of strength, not weakness: female CEOs interviewed by HBR in 2017 showed a higher level of humility and a willingness to learn and improve on the job, ‘[demonstrating] the ability to harness the power of others to achieve needed results, and the recognition that no one person defines the future of the company.’

The response you receive will also give you a definitive answer either way as to whether the environment you are working in is where your talents will be nurtured and valued, or whether it is time to seek a new direction.

Stick to Your Core Values

Resist the temptation to emulate the paths of others and try to completely match the habits of high profile career gurus or influencers – they do of course have some nuggets of wisdom, but ultimately you can only build support networks when people have genuine belief in your authenticity and motivations. If you are not sure of yourself, your values and what drives you, it is harder to align with like-minded people and articulate what you need and what you want. Remember ,your success isn’t someone else’s perception of what success looks like, it is getting where you want to be.

With that in mind, it is important not to force relationships – as per the advice in our article on networking, go in with a genuine desire to meet and learn from others.

You are responsible for your own success, but that doesn’t mean you always have to do it solo. There will be times when the guidance and encouragement of others will be crucial, so keep yourself open to support networks around you. If you are in need of some inspiration, here are some quotes from women who succeeded – in their own way, on their own terms, but by no means in isolation…

What Female Leaders Have to Say

“No matter who we are or what we look like or what we may believe, it is both possible and, more importantly, it becomes powerful to come together in common purpose and common effort.” 

Oprah Winfrey – philanthropist, actor, broadcaster, entrepreneur… the list goes on for the woman who sees nothing as being out of her reach

“To me, leadership is about encouraging people. It’s about stimulating them. It’s about enabling them to achieve what they can achieve – and to do that with a purpose.”

Christine Lagarde, french lawyer, politician and MD of the IMF has never been afraid to speak about the reality of being a woman in a male-dominated space

“I try to seek out and surround myself with people who just percolate fresh, original, and creative ideas.”

Martha Stewart – former stockbroker and model, who created a media empire around her cooking and home improvement talents

“Lead by example: support women on their way to the top. Trust that they will extend a hand to those who follow.”

Mariela Dabbah – author and career consultant, and founder of the Red Shoe Movement and Latinos In College, Dabbah uses her platform to support women and Hispanic people on their path to success

“I do have something to say that others will value, whether they are men or women. The first step is really knowing when to speak and the second step is to speak up because it really makes a difference.”

Barbara Humpton – U.S. CEO of Siemens. She has held senior leadership roles at other major technology firms, including Lockheed Martin, and Siemens Government Technologies, which works with the federal government on energy and infrastructure projects.