One of the most memorable films about women and work is All About Eve, starring Bette Davis as Margo Channing, a Broadway star whose career is threatened by a young rival, Eve Harrington, played by Anne Baxter. It’s the classic story of an elegant, inevitable bitch fight between two women who could have worked brilliantly together. Instead, they have to hate each other and the message is: ‘This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.’
The film, which was also recently adapted into a theatre production starring Gillian Anderson and Lily James, concludes that if women are to succeed, it will only be one at a time. Anything you win will be at the expense of someone else and you will have to destroy her to get it – a storyline that also plays out, somewhat gleefully, in the multi-award-winning 2018 drama The Favourite.
Delicious and entertaining as I find such stories, I think they have made us swallow a nasty, untrue narrative about female ambition. The trouble is, we rarely hear the antidote to tales of Machiavellian women hampering one another’s success. In my experience, in real life we are not especially comfortable shafting others to get what we want; in fact, we are more likely to get a kick out of helping them. In the words of Serena Williams, ‘the success of every woman should be an inspiration to another'.
I only got my first break in writing when I was doing work experience on a magazine because a young editor took the time to talk to me and trusted me to help her with her workload. That was on Cosmopolitan 25 years ago, and the woman was Kath Viner, now the first female editor of The Guardian. I’ve lost count of the women who have given me an email address or an introduction when I desperately needed it. Yes, there are male colleagues who have done a lot for me too. But I particularly notice and appreciate such generosity from my female counterparts because weare usually taught to mistrust one another – an attitude that makes little sense in a working world that is still terribly unequal. In Silicon Valley, just 11 per cent of senior executives are women, according to the research group Inspiring Women in Technology.
The recent Opportunity Insights project at Harvard showed that, currently, about 41 per cent of men will out-earn their father, compared with only one in four women. And last year, the World Economic Forum warned that it will take 100 years to achieve gender equality. Clearly, as women we have a lot to gain by ‘lifting’ each other as we climb.
The good news is that today’s society abounds with stories of women who are doing exactly this. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have spoken about their support for each other through their careers, when they could easily have been rivals. Both Booker Prize winners, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo have long been noted for championing debut writers. Phoebe Waller-Bridge continues to work with Vicky Jones, the director of the original Edinburgh run of Fleabag, and Olivia Colman has used many of her award speeches to credit the work of her female co-stars.
Social media and the rise of face-to-face women's networks in numerous companies are also helping to foster the idea that none of us has to do anything alone. When you need help, it’s far easier now to find someone and ask them than it was, say, 10 years ago. The trick is to do so responsibly and courteously. Think about how you would want to be asked and what it would take you to say yes. Learn to respect people’s time and send (very) short emails. Be graceful in the face of indifference – and of ‘no’, too. Think as much as you can about what you can easily and painlessly do for others, and do it without an agenda. Send thank-you notes. Let people know when they helped you.
It’s also good to be upfront. Ask younger colleagues ‘What can I do to help you out?’, and be honest with them about what is realistic and what is pie in the sky. You may not be able to get them a job or a pay rise, but you can connect them with someone in your circle with whom you think they would have a good conversation. The more straightforward you are about this, the easier it is.
So many potential moments of support are poisoned by someone thinking, ‘Is this person networking because they want something out of me?’ Anything any of us can do to make connections genuine is worthwhile; be clear that the introduction is being made because these two people really are like-minded, not because it is a transaction or a deal.
I recently interviewed Aline Santos, the vice-president of marketing at Unilever, for my podcast How to Own the Room. She told me about how, during her early career back in the 1980s, she wore glasses and men’s blazers to look more serious, and even put on aftershave to avoid distracting her male colleagues with perfume. Times have changed, and now we expect to succeed as ourselves – not to have to blaze a lone trail wearing borrowed clothes. I like to think that nowadays Eve Harrington wouldn’t stalk Margo and try to oust her. Instead, they’d form a production company and succeed together.
‘Lift As You Climb: Women and the Art of Ambition’ by Viv Groskop (Dhs55, Transworld) is out now.
Lead image courtesy of Jason Lloyd-Evans