Sisterhood is your super power
Today is the one year anniversary of Women Work. In celebration I am sharing the transcript from a recent speech I delivered to my Sorority on our Founder's Day, about the power of women coming together, sharing information, and supporting each other. Thank you for supporting Women Work, and for your continued support in the years to come.
Sisterhood is a word that has always made me uncomfortable. When I hear sisterhood I think of traveling pants, of divine secrets and Ya-Yas. But Brotherhood -- men calling each other brothers -- does have not the same association. Say brotherhood and images of noblesse and honor come to mind -- brothers in arms, band of brothers. A man calls another man brother, he’s gonna get a fist bump. You call another woman sister, and they are not related to you by blood, you’re gonna get eye rolls.
Why is that? What is it about women coming together, leaning on each other, supporting one another, that is … embarrassing? Is it because for the past 30 or so years, women in the workplace were expected to shed their femininity in order to compete in a man’s world? Or could it be that we were discouraged from gathering together? A group of men gathered together is a boy’s club. Boys will be boys. But a group of women gathered together is a gossip circle, a gaggle of hens who talk about their periods and shopping. The answer is this: when women come together they are dangerous. When women come together they get shit done. Sisterhood is a super power.
I learned invaluable lessons in my sorority. Most important among them was sisterhood. The value of female friendships. The strength you gain from leaning on your sisters for support. The incredible gift of being able to help others in need. It’s having someone in your corner that you can ask, “Am I crazy?” who will definitively respond with, “no, you are not crazy,” because believe me when I say there will be at least one moment in your career when you think you are the crazy one. You are not the crazy one.
I learned the importance of female friendships in my sorority, but it wasn’t until the last 3 years, really, until I had my daughter that I came back to those lessons. Because for some reason I had decided that for a woman to be successful in her career, or more specifically for me to be successful in my career, it was something I had to achieve alone. When I graduated from from college I took everything I’d learned living with 60 other women and shoved it in a box, and put it in the back of my closet along with my yearbooks and my journals and the love notes from old boyfriends (Don’t tell my husband). I abandoned the lessons I’d learned and entered the workforce ready to take the world head on, alone.
Which was a mistake.
For the past eleven years I’ve worked primarily in tech, which is a notoriously poor industry for women. My last two jobs before my current job were at a subscription razor business and a subscription meditation app. At the razor company I was the fifth woman hired and the first Mom. They literally wrote the company’s maternity policy for me. It was arguably one of the most bro-y companies you could work for in L.A. -- I employed a different sorority lesson there, how to work with Frat guys.
But there were no women I could talk to about the struggles of coming back to work after having a child. No one that could relate when I was passed over, twice, for a promotion. Passed over the first time when I was going on maternity leave. Passed over the second time because, after being back at work for four months post-maternity leave I was told I didn’t show enough initiative. Eventually I left razors for what I thought would be a more enlightened workplace--a company whose mission was literally, “To improve the health and happiness of the world.”
It had to be better right? It wasn’t better. It was worse. But this time I was not alone. It was in this work environment that I rediscovered the importance of sisterhood. It was there that I found my Tinas.
Tinas. Let me explain.
About a year into working at the meditation company we did a big customer segmentation study, which helped us understand the types of people who were most receptive to buying our product. There were four different customer segments, the one I was assigned to fit these criteria: She was a woman, the only female segment out of the four. 18-24 years old. Ambitious. Her role models were start-up founders and entrepreneurs. Girl Bosses. She was in college or a recent graduate, focused on saving money, getting a good job, and achieving success.
Each of these customer segments were named, and I named my segment Tenacious Tina.
It was easy for me to relate to this segment because I was Tina. Or, when I was 18-24 I had been a Tina. The ladies in the office that I worked with? They were also all Tenacious Tinas.
Casually, as a joke we started calling each other Tina. Someone would say, “Tina, you are looking bossy today,” and the other would respond, “Thanks, Tina!”
I started a invite-only group chat at the company called, “Tina” where the girls would ask for dry shampoo recommendations and yes, sometimes tampons. It started out as a fun group where women shared their stories, but soon enough we started sharing articles about pay equity and negotiation tactics. Offline we were doing even more. We were talking about how to ask for raises. We were supporting each other in meetings, not allowing “maninterruptions,” to occur to other ladies across the table. Some of us were even sharing salary information.
The guys in the office laughed at our Tina group. They thought we were a bunch of silly women talking about shopping and our periods, and we were, but we were also affecting change.
It wasn’t easy. There was a perception we were fighting--how could a company whose mission is to improve the health and happiness of the world, be a shitty place for women to work? How do you tell a company who has an image of mindfulness that the work environment is sexist?
With information sharing. With data. Because women always have to come prepared with data to prove that what we say and how we feel should be taken seriously.
First, there were no women on the executive team. None. The one woman they did hire at VP level was fired after 4 months. Speaking of firing, what if I told you of all the people who left the company, 75% of them were women? So forget about trying to hire more women in leadership roles, they couldn’t retain the women they already had.
While we were having these conversations the company happened to announce that they were hosting a fireside chat, where employees were allowed to submit questions for a chance to have them answered by the CEO. So in our private Tina chat room we asked each other what questions we wanted to have answered. And all of us, all 20 of us decided that each and every one would ask about getting more women on the executive team and about female employee churn.
Enough of us banded together and forced the company to face some very unflattering data. Did they answer our question? You bet. Was the answer satisfying? Not really. But they were forced to publicly acknowledged the issues that we raised, and a couple months later three women were promoted to the executive team. They went from 0% women representation to nearly half.
That is the power of women coming together. That is the power of sisterhood. If you haven’t already read the blog by ex-Uber engineer Susan J. Fowler I highly suggest that you do. Hers is a powerful example of the importance of information sharing.
Susan’s difficulties at Uber started when she reported sexual harassment from a male colleague. When she reported it to HR, they told her it was his first offense. That he was a high performer. That they wouldn't feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake. That was before Susan found her Tinas. Here is what happened after: “Over the next few months, I began to meet more women engineers in the company. As I got to know them, and heard their stories, I was surprised that some of them had stories similar to my own. Some of the women even had stories about reporting the exact same manager I had reported. It became obvious that both HR and management had been lying about this being "his first offense", and it certainly wasn't his last.”
In Susan’s case, banding together with the women in the office did not affect change. But if they hadn’t talked to each other, none of them would have known that collectively they were being lied to. None of them would have the tools to protect themselves, each other, and find better, safer work environments.
Sisterhood is so powerful that companies are afraid of it. In my case, while trying to help a junior employee get a raise I was told by HR that it was unprofessional for me to advocate on her behalf. In Susan’s case HR asked her if women engineers at Uber were friends and talked a lot, and how often they communicated, what they talked about, what email addresses they used to communicate, which chat rooms they frequented. They don’t want us to talk to each other because they know what happens when women come together--whether it’s to coach each other into asking for a raise, or knitting pink hats and marching on Washington--when women support one another, lean on each other, and help each other, there is nothing we can not do.
When it is your turn to enter the workforce, don’t try and do everything on your own. Find your Tinas, the ladies in the office you can rely on, who can be your allies, who have your back.
And help a Tina out. If a new woman starts working at your office introduce yourself. Help make her feel comfortable. No Tina gets left behind. If a woman gets interrupted in a meeting, when the maninterrupter is done speaking say, “I’m sorry, Tina. What were you saying?”
As women, we are often responsible for doing emotional heavy lifting. We worry about coming off bitchy. Or whether or not asking for more money is gonna make your boss like you less, because we have to be well-liked to be successful. We come to difficult situations having waded through all of these concerns, all so that when we present our case we’ve done it in a way that won’t offend, or anger or leave us worse off than before. We do everything men do and more but backwards, in heels and get paid less to do it.
Which is why we need other women. It’s also why we have to advocate for ourselves. You are smart, and bossy - let me pause on that for a moment. I like to tell my girlfriends who are looking particularly fierce and confident that they look bossy. I take back the word bossy. You are bossy and beautiful and badass and there is no reason for you not to be confident. Advocating for yourself means you are advocating for all women because when one woman succeeds, we all succeed. High tides raise all ships.
Another piece of required reading is Shonda Rhimes’ “Year of Yes.” There is an excerpt from her Shirley Lansing achievement award acceptance speech, which she was given for her efforts in breaking the glass ceiling in Hollywood that perfectly illustrates this point. "How many women had to hit that glass before the first crack appeared? How many cuts did they get, how many bruises? How hard did they have to hit the ceiling? How many women had to hit that glass to ripple it, to send out a thousand hairline fractures? How many women had to hit that glass before the pressure of their effort caused it to evolve from a thick pane of glass into just a thin sheet of splintered ice? So that when it was my turn to run, it didn’t even look like a ceiling anymore. I mean, the wind was already whistling through — I could always feel it on my face. And there were all these holes giving me a perfect view to other side. I didn’t even notice the gravity, I think it had worn itself away.
"So I didn’t have to fight as hard. I had time to study the cracks. I had time to decide where the air felt the rarest, where the wind was the coolest, where the view was the most soaring. I picked my spot in the glass and called it my target. And I ran. And when I hit finally that ceiling, it just exploded into dust. Like that. My sisters who went before me had already handled it. No cuts. No bruises. No bleeding. Making it through the glass ceiling to the other side was simply a matter of running on a path created by every other woman’s footprints. I just hit at exactly the right time in exactly the right spot."
As you leave college and enter the workforce remember to put on your bossiest outfit, you will always feel more confident and powerful when you’re feeling yourself, pump yourself up in whatever way works best for you, Beyonce always works for me, and find your Tinas. Remember the importance of sisterhood. It is your superpower.
Delivered March 5, 2017