There’s a scene in a recent episode of Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s latest hyper-articulate drama, where Sloan Sabbath tries to inject herself into a bonding session with two female co-workers. Her attempt is clumsy and embarrassing, prompting her male colleague to inject, “Be less desperate for female friends!” The implication: This is one of Sloan’s mantras, her New Year’s resolution for growth.
To appreciate the context here, you have to understand that Sloan Sabbath is an intellectual rockstar and drop-dead gorgeous. She holds two Ph.D.s, wears designer clothes, and enjoys tremendous respect from senior leaders at the network. She also (apparently) suffers from a dearth of female friends.
The scene got me thinking—Of all the tradeoffs women make to reach the top of their field, is friendship one of them?
Sheryl Sandberg and others have distilled “having it all” to three components—career success, a solid marriage, and happy children. But are those the only components?
When I started at Harvard Business School I was one of the youngest in my class. This intimidated my classmates, I could tell. I usually joked away their discomfort with self-effacing comments. (Alcohol also helps.) I worked extra hard to prove I deserved a seat in that classroom, and in the end business school was a tremendously maturing experience for me. But it was also an odd experience for one reason: all my closest friends ended up being male. I was more comfortable with men. The women, by and large, could not relate to me. Let me be clear—I am not a tomboy. My closest college friends and childhood friends are female. So what had changed?
The first time I got promoted at work, I sensed a few female friends becoming more distant. Whenever I present and shine in a meeting, I see some women grow a little more reserved, putting more space between themselves and me. I have never noticed this behavior from my male colleagues.
I am still very early in my career, but these experiences got me thinking of what happens to women and friendship as they rise in their professions. We know friendships change as we age, bonds we cultivated in school no longer hold true, and time available for friends is more finite and precious.
But we also know the importance of friendship to the soul and longevity. When centenarians are asked the secret to long life, overwhelmingly they highlight internally connected social networks. A crew. A cohort. Whatever you call it, friendship fills a void different from the one filled by a partner or a child. And a good friend can outlast both.
I confirmed this trend with some senior female leaders in the office. When asked about their most meaningful relationships, the mothers speak lovingly of coaching their kids through college applications, of being a good role model. The married ladies who seem happy highlight the importance of balance—finding a husband as committed to dirty laundry as he is to his career. These women enjoy strong networks with other female professionals and highlight instances of mentorship, but there was little mention of sisterhood.
To be fair, I accept that anyone—man or woman—will find it harder to make friends as they rise. You can’t befriend your subordinates, it creates a weird dynamic. I believe powerful men can also be threatened by other powerful men, so it’s probably hard for male rockstars to bond with each other as well.
But there are also fewer women at the top, and there’s still a friendship-killing belief that space at the top is very limited for women. In that sense, I do not envy the Sheryl Sandbergs of the world when it comes to female friendship. Men have an ocean of options, women have a puddle.
It’s better to be feared than loved, or so Machiavelli says. Any boss knows this. But let’s acknowledge that among the many things women give up as they rise, friendship may be the greatest loss. Sloan Sabbath shouldn’t have to build mantras for herself around female friendship. She is not that strange.
Watch Office Hours with Emilie Aries to learn more about her perspective on the importance of bonding with those around you in your career!