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The Demise of Sisterhood

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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!


#Friends At Work #Friends In The Workplace #Friendship Career Advice
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That scene stuck out to me too - thanks for articulating the costs and benefits of career success as they particularly pertain to women.

Thanks for sharing Anjali!

I have been having this conversation with a few women recently. Our grandmothers were onto something when they would gather to play cards-helping each other thru the storms of the great depression and war-building each other up with confidence! the In the movie The Help you can truly see the faithful sisterhood between their culture. I am rooting for our generation to bring back this lifestyle choice of making an effort to bond and elevate one another. Thank you so much for writing this article!

Linda Brandt
Linda Brandt

I like that this topic is getting more discussion. A framing that I would add to the article is "divide and conquer." When people are systematically mistreated they are often pitted against each other in numerous ways that keep them weak. All of their feelings get targeted at others like them rather than the group that is benefiting.

All that to say, it is revolutionary to support the woman who intimidates you and makes you feel lesser with her accomplishments or just who she is. Seeing a victory for one woman as a victory for all of us should be our aim. Unfortunately it will take some unlearning and practice to get there. Let's keep finding ways to remind ourselves that this is hard vision to achieve,but worth it.

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