Everything I’ve been told about being a successful woman has been anchored in sisterhood.
Over the course of your career, you travel with the same cycling cast of coworkers and power players. That woman you worked for as an intern? You’ll bump into her when you’re 28, when you’re 42, when you’re 60, and beyond. We’re all in this together! So play nice and pass along business cards.
But when you’re moving up with the same sisterly cast, doesn’t there come a point when your network is your competition?
I’ve ingested the same mantras that I’m sure you have: Foster relationships, tend to your network, LEAN IN, ask for that reference, ask for that introduction, LEAN IN, your network is more valuable than your net worth, LEAN IN.
When Sallie Krawcheck spoke at Cosmopolitan’s Fun Fearless Life conference this fall and said the words, “Network, network, network, network,” four solid times in a row, I nodded in solidarity. I can’t rely on the boys’ club to make room for me, so I have to put my trust in other women.
I have consumed that Kool-Aid since I was privileged enough to attend a women’s college, where they grab you at 18 and explicitly tell you that the game is rigged. That it doesn’t matter how qualified or smart or talented or innovative you are. If you don’t have a network of people — whether women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, or all of the above — looking out for you, you can’t expect to get nearly as far as the Straight White Man with his metaphoric golf buddies.
But in competitive industries in which we’re climbing over equally qualified men for coveted jobs, we are also climbing over each other — the sisterhood. There may be no “I” in team, but there is only one “me” in resume.
Nonetheless, I pay it forward in a way that would make Sheryl Sandberg proud. My resources are your resources. My network is your network. I write recommendations and pass along resumes and connect every hardworking lady I know because, dammit, let’s make all the money.
But sometimes, as you pass me your resume or ask about that position, I feel the sting of knowing someone else vying for that exact same spot — someone else in my network who is also super qualified and absurdly talented. And sometimes, that other person might just be me.
Next: How many Beyoncés can there be?
The communal jargon often vaulted at ambitious women does not reflect the steely reality. If we’re all vying for the same hypothetical C-suite positions, we can’t all be chummy. There’s only one Anna Wintour. There’s only one Beyoncé. And while I’m actively working to create space for 100 Beyoncés (with the perpetual introductions, emails, and resume handoffs), presently there is only one.
And take note: I will be Beyoncé.
Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie noted in her (Beyoncé-quoted) TedxEuston talk heard round the world that women competing for “jobs or for accomplishments” is “a good thing.” And in comparison to competing over men or who looks the most bangable in a dress, she’s obviously right. We are evolving from ye old days of competing over viable husbands, particularly for financial security, and that is a societal accomplishment that we should applaud.
But given that so much of our contemporary professional language is couched in helping the women next to us (or behind us or in front of us), I find the line between prioritizing personal advancement and exercising communal duty more and more murky.
This murkiness plays out in another key area of professional life: money. Research shows that women are generally more skilled at advocating for other people in negotiation. When it comes to asking for raises or top positions, women (across all age demographics) are less likely to ask on behalf of themselves.
And the intimacy of our networks makes this navigation of “me or we?” all the more fraught. Because if we didn’t get that job, we usually know who did. If our friend didn’t land that deal, then perhaps another acquaintance (whose client list we have also happily contributed to) has.
We are in the unique position of not only being one another’s biggest tools of upward mobility, but also one another’s biggest competition.
This phenomenon is further complicated by the cultural framing that no success is solely our own. Our personal success is often articulated as a success for all women (or all black women or all queer women or all mothers or all Millennial women).
And yet, we have so much invested in one another’s success that it can, and often does, feel like a genuine win when one of our own reaches a new milestone. Our efforts helped land them there — whether we made an introduction or once hired and mentored them, they didn’t get that position all by themselves.
Careers are long. We’re going to be playing musical job chairs for many years to come. So I continue to send the introductions and read over your cover letter because once I do get to the top, I’m going to want to work only with other Beyoncés.