I had lunch with a girlfriend the other day and was surprised to hear yet another Latina executive talk about the “mean girls club.” I was starting to wonder if this was an actual club with locker rooms, a swimming pool and a lounge where all these wicked women got together to plot against their gender-mates. As if the space for women in the top ranks were limited and all the seats taken.
In the two previous weeks I had heard similar stories from other girlfriends and female colleagues, all of them executives, who were having a hard time aligning their management style with the corporate culture of their respective companies. In many situations, the people making things hard for these women were other women.
The truth is that it continues to be a struggle for diverse women to succeed at the highest levels of a corporation — most likely the result of a conservative corporate culture that has a hard time embracing different styles and values combined with the need to further coach and mentor these women.
One of my smartest friends found an outstanding executive coach who not only helps her understand the unwritten rules of the game but also plays the unofficial role of therapist lending an empathetic ear at the end of a migraine-inducing discussion with one of the mean girls. Another one, sadly, decided to quit her high paying job.
So, when it comes to doing what it takes to get your posh office and the corporate credit card, how much is too much? It obviously depends on your goals and your resilience levels. On your priorities and willingness not to take things too personally. On your ability to find allies and mentors, sponsors and advocates within and outside of the organization that can be part of the support network that keeps you focused and learning. And on your commitment to conducting an ongoing introspection.
Let me explain. As you move up in your career, there’s no question that you will constantly have to engage in a profound soul searching to identify what you have learned and what you’re still missing, what cultural traits impact your ability to connect with others and communicate in a productive way. What in your upbringing or in your life experience makes you overreact when someone tries to control you, keep you in a corner, or treat you like you don’t know what you’re talking about in public.
When you commit to this kind of ongoing reflection alone or with the help of a coach, you can identify the areas where you need assistance and seek it. Sometimes the problem stems from the fact that you haven’t identified the source of the conflict because no matter how much you try not to take it personally, every time the mean girl (or the mean boy) says that you are a failure, your gut turns inside out and you become paralyzed. But the moment you realize, for example, that that person makes you feel the way your father made you feel when you were a kid, when nothing you did was ever good enough for him, you can give new meaning to the overreaction and slowly modify your behavior. Because now you know that the paralysis you experience in that situation is a reaction to something else that happened long ago. That you are no longer a vulnerable little girl. That you have lots of tools at your disposal to fight off mean people.
For instance, in this scenario, you could find out about this woman’s life and realize she’s had an abusive childhood and as a result needs to be overly controlling of her environment. Developing some empathy for her may be the first step to developing a better relationship with the witch.
So don’t quit just yet. Lots of women in the workforce need you as a role model who will prove that it’s possible to make it in corporate America. And, bit by bit, we will fashion together a workplace that’s more embracing of our collective cultures. These women need you there to help them fight the dragons.