Queen bees. Catty women. Mean girls. These are the people I was supposed to encounter when I headed off to college and then into the workforce according to, well, pop culture. Movies, books and cautionary tales painted these female characters with such consistency that I braced myself for the inevitability as I packed up that fall to head off to a university a few states away. Barely knowing a soul, and leaving behind friends and organizations and sports teams, I went through sorority recruitment just to meet people. I hoped that somehow I’d find a few women who broke from that mold to count as friends. What I found instead was an entire network of them, and a more realistic view of the important and supportive role women play in each other’s lives.
I just spent a weekend reconnecting with this incredible group of women, nearly 20 years later. My sorority chapter celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding at my alma mater’s homecoming this fall, prompting 300 women – from the septuagenarian founding members on down to those whose tassels are still on their rearview mirrors – to return to that little college town we shared across generations. It was my first trip “home” for homecoming in 15 years. And viewing it all through the lens of time – having since moved a half-country away, earned a master’s degree, launched a career, built a women’s executive network for the firm where I work, and participated in a movement encouraging women to lean in – I’m reminded that my sorority experience was the place I first learned to support and stand alongside accomplished and driven women.
Instead of being a place to earn an “Mrs.” degree, as the old stigma would suggest, it was a place I spent years with sisters who are now well into careers in law, medicine, finance, nursing, education, counseling, psychology, small business ownership, nonprofit management and more – from a state legislator to a Second City performer – each more excited about her career and opportunities than the next.
Rather than a group of people who exploited each other’s weaknesses, it was a group of women who’ve celebrated each other’s successes, from white coat ceremonies to bar exam entrances to dissertation defenses, and where a leader on her way off into the “real world” would first take a young woman under her wing to help shape her [my] college career and later professional passions.
Instead of forging superficial connections between young women, it was the start of the deep friendships so important throughout life – women standing with each other in good times like weddings, births and accomplishments, as well as periods of loss, disappointment, mourning and transition.
Far from seeing women get out the “cat claws,” I saw women get out the vote – helping to elect first one sister, then two, as president of the student government association, ending a 25-year streak without a female executive leading the student body.
This of course was just one experience, at one school, in one window of time. But it was so far removed from the stereotype that it bears calling attention to it. Particularly in a year that has put gender experiences, expectations and bias at the center of the national stage. Just as Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant wrote this summer in the New York Times, there persists this myth that women don’t support other women. The team at Lean In has a great project called #LeanInTogether to debunk that myth, showcase bonds of friendship that have helped some famous women achieve in their careers, and offer women tips for being a workplace ally to other women.
Leading my company’s women’s network, I have daily reminders that I’ve found incredibly supportive women as colleagues and mentors in and around my workplace. Taking this long overdue trip back to school was a great reminder that my support network started decades ago, and that buying into the “women don’t support women” myth would have cost me some of the most important relationships in my life.
Authored by Rebecca Ballard