How grim is it? Well, at the beginning of 2023 we learned that, for the first-time in its seven-decade history, the total number of female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies is above 10 percent which, while a milestone, is still woefully disproportionate. (And of those 53 women at the helm, only a handful of them are women of color.) According to the “Women in the Workplace” report, published in December 2022 by McKinsey and LeanIn, only 1 in 4 C-Suite leaders is a woman and only 1 in 20 is a woman of color, a gap brought on by what the report refers to as the “broken rung” in the corporate ladder—for every 100 men that are promoted from an entry level position to management, only 87 women are promoted. (Only 82 women of color are promoted.) And let’s not forget the impact of the Great Resignation on the representation of women in the workforce.
This “battle of the babes” was mirrored in pop culture for years, both on and off the screen with TV shows ranging from Beverly Hills 90210 to Desperate Housewives and pseudo-wars that pitted Christina against Britney, Jennifer against Angelina. That type of ‘90s and early aughts anti-feminism is certainly on the outs, but it feels like it took a Jamie to truly reset the course.
The question then becomes, can we normal people take the lessons of our celebrity sisters and implement them in our own professional environments?
Evelyn Rodstein, an executive career coach and leadership expert who has worked in a range of Fortune 100 companies including KPMG and JP Morgan Chase thinks we can, and that it’s in everyone’s best interest. Rodstein, who began her career in the 1980s, remembers a time when she was managing director at a big firm and felt herself pitted against the only other female managing director; they fought constantly, mainly about getting equal time with the CEO. Finally, however, something caused a sea change, and they both admitted it would be better to align—to hype each other, really—a move that bolstered the business and their own careers. “We were both working mothers and sat in our office and asked each other, ‘Are you tired?’ ‘Yeah, I’m tired.’ We shifted our approach to helping each other and doors opened up.”
Rodstein thinks this specific post-pandemic moment is particularly ripe for making such a change. “Women thrive on connection and we were so isolated from each other during COVID,” she says. “Generosity of spirit is now just seeping out of our pores.” Of course, in order to feel that generosity of spirit, she adds, it helps to first feel confident about your own power and success.
Curtis certainly does—she’s found space for herself and can now use her voice to make space for others. “It’s energizing and creates a virtuous circle,” Rodstein notes.
But lack of confidence and the scarcity mindset aren’t the only barriers that block women from supporting each other. “We’re wired differently from men,” Dee Poku Spalding, founder of the WIE Suite, a private membership-based community for women in leadership, acknowledges. “Men don’t need to like you to do business with you. My husband will meet someone and within five minutes, they’ve made introductions and are exchanging business cards. Women have to have three coffees first—it takes us a bit longer to trust. I don’t know where those norms come from, but we need to get rid of them.”
Another major factor holding us back? Time, bandwidth and the mental load. A recent study conducted by the medical journal The Lancet Public Health concluded that women spend about four and a half hours a day caring for their families and homes—double the amount of men. We’re also most impacted by the lack of affordable childcare and paid leave. In other words, who can go around amping up their colleagues when they don’t have enough time to sign the kids up for camp, let alone finish their actual work? “It’s an attention problem,” says Spalding. “Men have this ability to free up their minds from all they have to do and think in a singular way about what’s right for them in that moment and do it. Women have the weight of the world on their shoulders.”
Systematic racism, misogyny and heteronormativity are also in play. “Straight white women are as close as anyone can be to a straight white man, which is the archetype for the person who has the most power and influence,” Gallagher says. “So, if success is built upon access—and we know statistically that it is—straight white women have the most to lose and often impede the progress of other non-white women. It’s essential to acknowledge and push back on that.”
So, how do we go about hyping women in the face of a history that’s taught us not to? Rodstein resurfaced a terrific example from the Obama White House. When he took office, two thirds of his administration were men—and the women complained that they had to elbow their way into meetings. According to the Washington Post, once in the room, those female staffers came up with a meeting strategy they called ‘amplification’ or hyping each other up. When a woman made a key point, these women amplifiers repeated it and gave credit to the author. (This forced men to recognize the contribution and not claim it as their own.) Obama noticed too, and began calling more often on his female aids.
But it’s not all presidential accolades. Hyping each other starts with the little things, Gallagher says. “It’s about taking that extra step to say that woman’s name when she’s not in the room, to send that email that showcases the work that she did, tout her accomplishments on LinkedIn—there are so many small steps to take.”
They also don’t only apply to the boardroom. You could post about a friend’s new jewelry line on Instagram. You could email your school’s principal to rave about your child’s teacher. You could also simply choose to consistently speak well of the women in your orbit, even if your gut instinct is to judge or compare.
After all, for as long as we can remember, we’ve been taught to compete, but what if—as women—we simply made a decision to handle things differently? “That conditioning isn’t our fault,” Gallagher maintains. “But we don’t have to listen anymore.”