Work Pals: Can Your Women Friends Help You Succeed?

From Laverne and Shirley working alongside each other at a brewery to the female doctors in “Grey’s Anatomy,” allies on “Scandal,” and best friends on “Chicago Fire,” friendships between women at work have been touched upon, ignored and stereotyped in popular culture, history, literature and real life.Journalist and author Kayleen Schaefer is trying to shed more light on what women friends do and don’t do for each other in her first book, Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship.  While she has her own BFF, Ruthie (whom she met at work), Schaefer says she spent the first part of her professional life avoiding other women. She writes that this tendency comes from “the fear that only one woman can be promoted.”And while that may be the reality in some organizations that are not working towards gender parity and inclusion, it is certainly not universal. And it doesn’t help anyone.“I hope women don’t have the same mentality I did, because I felt like I had to separate myself from other women to get ahead,” says Schaefer, who has worked for Details magazine, The Daily and Women’s Health. “I thought we can’t all advance together, but now I think the opposite.”Schaefer writes, “For the first few years of my professional life, I spent a lot of time making Herculean efforts to strangle my femininity.”It wasn’t until her co-worker Ruthie stood up for her in a meeting at the men’s magazine where they both worked that she realized the power and support possible with other female colleagues.Sometimes called a “work wife,” Julia Carpenter writes in CNN Money that having a woman friend in the workplace is beneficial.“Research shows that friendship in the workplace is often a good thing. A study from the Harvard Business Review showed that employees who said they had close friends at work were more engaged doing the job than those who didn’t have the same support.”Schaefer writes recently in the New York Times, “Erica Cerulo and Claire Mazur, who founded the e-commerce platform Of a Kind, use ‘work wives’ to emphasize that they are devoted to one another.”“’We’re friends who started a company and spend an inordinate amount of time together, and the nature of our relationship is really hard to put into words quickly,’ Ms. Cerulo says. ‘Referring to each other as ‘work wife’ gets at the blend of the professional and the personal — and the commitment,’” Schaefer writes.

I know that in four decades of working in different newsrooms, media outlets, a university, as well as non-profit organizations, that it is my female colleagues—call them my squad, tribe, or networking group— who have helped me handle my failures as well as root for me in success. They show up at book signings and speeches, tweet my articles, listen when I am frustrated about a negotiation or project gone sour and help me as sincere, authentic mentors and allies.

Women friends at work can be lifeboats.[bctt tweet=“Women friends at work can be lifeboats. #workwife” username=“takeleadwomen”]“We don’t have the language for this, like romantic relationships. These friendships are treated as disposable. We have to start figuring our this language ourselves,” says Schaefer, who launched her journalism career after graduating with a masters in journalism from Northwestern University in 2001.“I am a supporter of these tribes because they create safe spaces. You can have a group text and you can always say what you want,” Schaefer says.Creating such safe spaces is the virtual and in real life foundation of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, where women can tell true stories and feel kinship, support and encouragement. It is also the backbone of women’s professional networking and mentoring.“Prioritizing friendship is sometimes tricky; society often indicates to women that it’s not on the same level as the other relationships in our lives, such as the ones with our romantic partners, out children, or even jobs,” Schaefer writes.[bctt tweet=”#FemaleFriendships both in the workplace and outside that can help us feel better about who we are. “ username=“takeleadwomen”]But it is just these relationships both in the workplace and outside that can help us feel better about who we are. But how can you cultivate a female friendship at work? And does she need to be on the same level in the hierarchy as you? That depends, but it needs to be about real friendship, not opportunism.“I think it is about being honest,” Schaefer says. “Look for genuine people. If a woman at work wants to go for coffee, take the coffee. Don’t think, ‘What do I need to be wary of?’”A true friend at work will support your accomplishments, stand up for you in meetings, cheerlead your latest kudo and promote you and your work.[bctt tweet=“A true friend at work will support your accomplishments, stand up for you in meetings, cheerlead your latest kudo and promote you and your work. #womenintheworkplace” username=“takeleadwomen”]“I am a Polyanna about this, but I’m very happy when my friends do amazing things and progress through stages of life and do what they want,” Schaefer says. “It’s natural to feel jealous, but once you see beyond the surface, it’s different.”Friendships with other women in the workplace and who share your vision is part of being “a sister,” and having “Sister Courage,” according to Take The Lead co-founder and president Gloria Feldt. One of the 9 Leadership Power Tools, “Take Action; Create a Movement,” is about utilizing these friendships and alliances.Read this in Take The Lead on mentoring. “Things don’t just happen. People make them happen in a systematic way. And you can change systems. Apply the three movement building principles of Sister Courage (be a sister, act with courage, put them together to create a PLAN) and you will realize your vision at work, at home, or in public life,” according to Feldt.The perception that you are likable at work—having a close friend or many friends—can also help you move up.“If you work in an office, you probably spend more time with your colleagues than you do with even your closest friends — and the quality of those relationships can mean the difference between a joyful workday and a minefield of stress and conflict,” writes Heidi Grant, global director of research and development at the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of “Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You,” along with co-authors David Rock, director of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of “Your Brain at Work,” and Mary Slaughter, executive vice president – global practices and consulting at the NeuroLeadership Institute, in Business Insider.“As it turns out, being liked doesn’t just make work more fun — studies show that being seen as likable is also the best way to get promoted or get a raise,” they write.Read more about how to be nice at work in Take The Lead.Of course it is not all lunch dates, conference call jokes and happy hours with other women at work. Yes, there are mean girls and Queen Bees and women who are trying to make sure you do not get ahead,  but that is not the norm. Still, if you are friendly with your boss, be cognizant of boundaries.Read more here in Take The Lead about Queen Bee Syndrome.“I think that can work, but it’s more of a mentor/mentee situation if she’s a higher up.” She adds, “If your boss is your friend, it’s not a terrible thing.  The rarest pairings are friends from different age groups,” Schaefer says.Schaefer writes in the book about research from University of California-Los Angeles about the “tend and befriend” response in female rats when exposed to stress, an opposite reaction to a make “fight or flight” response.“Tending involves nurturant activities designed to protect the self and offspring that promote safety and reduce distress; befriending is the creation and maintenance of social networks that may aid in this process. The biobehavioral mechanism that under lies the tend and befriend pattern appears to draw heavily on the attachment/caregiving system and considerable neuroendocrine evidence from animal and human studies suggests that oxytocin, in conjunction with female reproductive hormones and endogenous opioid peptide mechanisms, may be at its core,” writes lead researcher Shelley E. Taylor.In other words, there is a scientific explanation for why women stick together in times of stress. And those stressors can definitely occur at work.[bctt tweet=“There is a scientific explanation for why women stick together in times of stress. And those stressors can definitely occur at work. #womenleaders” username=“takeleadwomen”]Focusing on how women can support each other professionally seems particularly timely. And seeing images of women in popular culture helping each other to succeed and move forward also seems important.“Showing women’s friendships, on-screen and off, is so important because it changes the narrative in society that says women must be adversaries, on some level, no matter what,” Schaefer writes.“The more we see women together, the more these relationships become real and nuanced.”