Joanne Wilson: Women Supporting Women
by Kyle Kendall
“Everything Is possible.”
Joanne Wilson’s entrepreneurial journey has seen her take on many roles across many industries, from retail to media to the tech world. After decades of firsthand experience as a woman in business, she’s now the ultimate supporter of fellow female entrepreneurs: she’s an angel investor who backs mostly women-founded companies. She blogs about her investing adventures under the name Gotham Gal, and co-founded the annual Women’s Entrepreneurial Festival.
And one shift she’s noticed over the years has her feeling particularly optimistic about today’s community of female entrepreneurs.
“I like that women of this generation are embracive of each other and are communal and want to help each other succeed,” she says. “That was not of my generation. You knew there was only going to be one woman at the top if you were lucky, and if you were a really competitive person like I was, there were a lot of sharp, sharp elbows. There were not women who were leaning down with their hand and trying to pull you up to the next level.”
Joanne is an inspiring example of a radical shift toward women supporting one another, but it’s also true that there’s still work to be done.
In the early 70’s, researchers coined the term ‘queen bee syndrome,’ using it to describe women in positions of authority who were more critical of their female subordinates than males. The result was a cycle of women who were often reluctant to uplift fellow women in their fields.
Decades later, social scientists still find that women in male-dominated industries can be ‘queen bees.’ The difference, now, is that we’re seeing the problem for what it is: a product of sexist socialization, not an inherent female trait.
A 2011 study found that the ‘queen bees’ it surveyed were most often women who had experienced a great deal of sexism throughout their own careers. In other words, women who had been discriminated against were more likely to discriminate against other women.
It’s true, too, that spots at the top for women are limited – still. The rate of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies is growing painfully slowly: from 1995 to 2008 the percentage of female CEOs grew from zero to just 2 per cent; and in 2014 it had only made it up to 5 per cent.
But in reality, we know that when there are more women at the top of the corporate ladder, more people take women in business seriously, and, in turn, more spots at the top open up.
A 2012 study surveyed 20,000 American private sector firms in various industries in an attempt to find out whether women in the corporate world help each other advance. The study found that when the number of women in top management positions increased over time, so did the number of women in mid-level positions.
And, importantly, “Black, Hispanic and Asian women in top management also have a positive influence on subsequent increases in Black, Hispanic and Asian women in mid-level management.”
The same can be said for women entrepreneurs: when there are more women-led startups, investors can see for themselves the enormous and powerful potential for women as successful CEOs and business owners.
It’s safe to say it’s in all of our best interest to support and encourage one another. But where do we start?
One way women around the world are breaking the cycle of competition is through women’s professional networks. These organizations not only encourage career advancement through networking, but also provide a space where women can come together and encourage each other’s successes and learn from each other’s failures.
“We have a lot of things that are tearing us apart,” says Porsha Thomas, the founder of Ladypreneur League, an Atlanta-based network for women entrepreneurs and online community for women around the world living the startup life. “I think all of us working together is trying to help dispel that… I think if we come together, there’s really no need to compare with each other.”
Porsha says walking into a boardroom full of men can be intimidating, so she wanted to create an environment where women can not only be sources of moral support, but also do business with one another, exchanging services and making key contacts.
“I feel like it’s easier for women to do business with each other. That seems to be the kind of consensus that I’m getting from people who come to the events,” she says.
The film industry is another place where their male counterparts often massively outnumber women. But Dream, Girlwas produced by an all-female crew — it was a story that could only be told by women.
“I get nervous,” says Dream, Girl producer Komal Minhas, “because I’ve only ever seen in the media female relationships portrayed in a super negative way where they’re catty, they don’t get along… but working with our crew, you realize that that’s all backwards. That was a male dominated story. That, when women get control of the story and when they can work together and uplift one another, everything is possible.”
Women have been sold the ‘queen bee’ narrative effectively enough and for long enough that too many of us have conceded that women can’t work together.
We call bluff.
What about you?
Has there been an influential woman in your life who’s reached down to help you up the ladder? Tell us about her! Comment below or join the conversation in the official Dream, Girl facebook group.