All Tides Will Rise

Why We Should Embrace the Old Girls’ Club

As a little girl, I was taught I could be anything: class president, astronaut, doctor, scientist, racecar driver, photographer, fashion designer — anything I dreamed. I was one of four children, two boys and two girls, all born close together. My parents created an environment where play was unisex — we all took ballet, we all played with Erector sets, and we were all better for it. It armed me with a mindset to seek out and surround myself with the strong female coworkers, managers, influencers and friends. Because of the way I was raised, I assumed that everybody valued strength and power in a woman. It wasn’t until I became a manager that I realized my experience and outlook wasn’t as common as I’d thought.

I learned quickly that if I wanted to help my employees or friends advance in their careers, I had take mentorship, particularly mentorship of strong women, very seriously. Men have historically done a better job of this (though not perfectly because it’s been at the exclusion of other groups). It’s why we have the term “old boys’ club” — a chain of men, lifting each other and the younger generation into positions of power, educating them, giving them opportunities, and choosing who gets to make decisions and who doesn’t. How can women empower more women to achieve positions of power? 

There are a lot of good reasons there isn’t an old girls’ club — there simply haven’t been enough of us at the top for long enough to build the momentum and the networks necessary. But women have proven again and again that they can do anything that men can do. There isn’t men’s work and women’s work, there’s just work.

Support for women in business is at an all-time high, but it’s not enough. In a survey of 279 companies representing 13 million employees, women were only 23 percent of c-level executives and senior leadership. They were only 29 percent of VPs and 34 percent of senior managers and directors. This imbalance is why it’s not enough to attend conferences and listen to inspirational influencers. It’s not enough to lean in. If we want to redesign business to be more friendly to women, to engage in conversations that haven’t happened in the past, we must have more women in the c-suite. Change must happen at all levels — god knows we need more opportunities for women in the middle of their careers, especially those juggling work and family — but women at the top are a powerful forcing function. We’ll need women and men to help us make it happen, and it begins with destigmatizing the old girls’ club.

Women’s business is good business

The WNBA named a new CEO last year, Cathy Engelbert. Engelbert came from Deloitte and is already making sweeping changes. She led the way in producing a new collective bargaining agreement that guarantees higher salaries, better traveling conditions and paid maternity leave — which, believe it or not, no other professional women’s sports league guarantees for its players. Now she’s hoping to double corporate sponsorship investment in the league, bringing in more money, more attention and more fans.

Engelbert can put these forcing functions in place because she’s a seasoned executive in the highest position of power in her organization. And these changes are good for everyone — good for fans, good for employees, good for brands looking for new opportunities to reach specific audiences. As Engelbert puts it, “All tides will rise.”

We’re seeing this at other organizations, too. Ginni Rometty, chairman, president and CEO of IBM has helped make the company more friendly to working women and mothers with extended parental leave. The National Association for Female Executives consistently ranks IBM as a top company for equal opportunity efforts that positively affect women’s careers.

Prioritizing women — whether they’re your employees, customers, or partners — is good business. Because guess what? You’re selling to women. In marketing, we talk about knowing your target audience inside and out, understanding their pain points and knowing how to position your product as a good value-add for them. So of course you want women’s voices involved! Having women at the top of the org, with the power to pull more women up and start conversations about what women want and need is a win for everybody.

This is why men shouldn’t be threatened by women in power forging an old girls’ club — it will make their jobs easier and better, and their organizations more successful. This isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s not women taking power away from men or vice versa. It’s all of us — regardless of gender — raising our voices and making the space we play in bigger, more open, and better for everyone.

What does the old girls’ club look like?

Many companies hire women into entry-level positions, but women have a hard time advancing through the pipeline to more senior roles. A 2018 survey found women are 21 percent less likely than men to be promoted to a managerial role. African American women are 40 percent less likely to earn that promotion than a man. Since COVID-19, it’s also been reported 45% of women business leaders find it difficult for women to speak in virtual meetings, meaning women will be less likely to speak up. As a result, women stagnate in roles more than their male peers, and advance more slowly up the corporate ladder.

An old girls’ club requires a healthy talent pipeline for women. How might we build that?

  • Be an active mentor. Mentoring is the first thing many women leaders think of when they consider how to help other women succeed — after all, many of us were helped along our path by our own powerful mentors. But we must go further than just making ourselves available. We need to actively seek out other talented women in our companies who need support.
  • Help women see themselves in the c-suite. Harvard Business Review reports that women don’t see roles in the c-suite as a possibility for them. We must normalize the idea of women CEOs, especially in performance reviews and feedback sessions.
  • Reduce bias in hiring and promotion. Unconscious bias training is, thankfully, much more common than it was even a few years ago. Managers and recruiters have the power to make these changes stick: are you identifying talented women as often as talented men? Do you expect more from women employees? Do employees of both genders have a clear path to senior leadership and the c-suite?
  • Celebrate sisterhood. Living in a patriarchal society means it can be hard for women to unequivocally celebrate and support each others’ successes. The desire to compete with other women is engrained in us. We must fight that desire — no more cattiness, no more quid pro quo, no more “that’s nice, but.”

 Putting women at the top

I wrote the first draft of this piece the day before Elizabeth Warren, once considered a likely prospect, dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination. Now it looks like Sanders and Biden will duke it out—or as a New York Times opinion piece put it, “Maybe next time, ladies.” The most diverse presidential field in history has been winnowed down to two white men in their seventies.

It’s not just corporations that have a hard time giving top opportunities to women — it’s government bodies and the American public, too. But change is possible. Whatever level you are in your organization, you have the power to reshape opportunities for women. You just have to refuse to accept the status quo and do something about it. Pushing that kind of structural change is the goal, and an old girls’ club that can lift women into positions of power where they can put executive weight behind these conversations is the means to that end.

March 09, 2020

Kristin Flor Perret
Former EVP, Head of Global Marketing