Di Beddow

Writer, Academic & Education Consultant

Women who don’t help other women: myth or reality?

Women who don’t help other women: myth or reality?

In a world where we’re all supposed to be ‘leaning in’ and supporting each other, there are still women out there who don’t get it. And we should be thankful for them, says Di Beddow

At a workshop for women leaders in education recently, a colleague quoted Madeleine Albright; “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

Initially I laughed at this but then I realised while they might have been unhelpful at the time, I have learnt just as much from my negative role models as I have from those lovely, supportive, empowering examples.

The “Lean In” phenomenon pushes the importance of mentoring and encouraging others on the way up the ladder. However, even Sheryl Sandberg admits that she cringes when women come up to her and ask her to be their mentor.

“The strongest relationships,” she avows, “spring out of a real and often earned connection felt by both sides.”

Well of course they do, but we can have equally strong relationships with those we dislike. In fact, they often have a more powerful influence on us. They take up more of our thoughts and can come to dominate our lives if we let them. But while these relationships can be unhealthy, they can also teach us so much. They certainly have for me.

When my anti-mentor, Andrea, came new to the school in which I was working she seemed to good to be true. She bought me a bottle of wine on my birthday, offered me her successful application letter as a template for future job applications and in public she thanked me for all of my hard work. What more could a girl want?

Well, maybe a girl would prefer not to get e-mails, copied to the rest of the leadership team, telling her what she had got wrong that week. Highlighted in red, just in case I or anyone else missed it. I endured a year of this and it made me miserable. However, in hindsight, I learned an important leadership lesson from Andrea – might is not always right. Having power is a wonderful thing but how you use it is what matters.

My next experience came with Nora. She was a fantastically successful academic, who espoused in a glossy book on women’s leadership that her joy was mentoring women to their potential. At a crossroads in my career, I contacted her and asked if she had time to talk to me about her success and how I might find a way forward in her field. She agreed to see me and we had coffee in her study, where she slowly, and I hope unconsciously, pulled me apart.

“You may try…”, pause while she let me think about this, “but I doubt if you would get anywhere.”

Swiftly followed with, “You might enjoy writing, but you have had little success in the past few months.”

On walking away from her office I would happily have thrown myself into the Mill Pond, Woolf style, with a handful of pebbles in my pocket.

In the cold light of day, I know that I am a better person for the public criticism, for the half-hearted coaching. It says more about them than it does about me and it’s taught me what not to do in my own career. And when I begin to feel like I might still resent them, I remember that Madeleine Albright quote, and smile.

Article by Di Beddow published in the Guardian newspaper

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