This past summer during the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, I felt humbled and blessed to be in the presence of some of the world’s leading marketers. Our special treat this particular morning was listening to Sheryl Sandberg discuss her new book, her journey and her mantra: lean in. Listening to Sheryl is inspiring, relatable and poignant. Her powerful words got me thinking about my own journey that led me to my new role as CMO for RedPeg.
That warm glow I was basking in quickly dissipated. I was pissed.
I’ve worked in sports for years and am no stranger to being in the locker room surrounded by a team of naked men, trying to hurry them along for post-game interviews. As women, we learn to deal with a certain type of man: his overpowering ego, snide judgement and unwanted advances. But what we never learn (and rarely voice) is how to cope when women prevent other women from leaning in. Twice in my life I’ve had very senior women try to break me. And they very nearly succeeded.
The first time I was a fresh-faced 23-year-old working for one of the world’s most highly respected global brands. I couldn’t believe my luck—and the job was in my beloved Paris! Over the course of three years this very smart woman, my boss and someone I should have looked up to and learned from, slowly chipped away at my confidence, lied about my work, barred me from attending meetings, undermined my successes, convinced our CEO that I was incompetent and ultimately waved her magic wand to ensure that I would leave. How a recent college grad could have been such a threat still baffles me—nonetheless, her perceived nemesis had been toppled.
Fast-forward nearly 12 years and out of the blue, our former CEO contacted me to apologize for having listened to that manager and never allowing me the opportunity to speak. He found out shortly after I left what she had been doing—but rather than reach out to repair a broken 26-year-old, he let me live with tremendous self-doubt for years. He was complicit, but she was to blame. I never heard from him again, which was a huge shame because he was an extraordinary man who I learned loads from. His gesture brought me some peace, but it didn’t heal the deep-seated wounds that torment me to this day.
The next time I was on the receiving end of a female hit squad was roughly 10 years later. I was a mom by this point and had not long been back in the workforce. I felt like my brains were more mashed potatoes. But like women everywhere, I threw myself into my job to simply get on with my new reality as a working mom.
I once again reported to the most senior woman, whose arrival was likened to the Messiah. For the next year-and-a-half, she set about doing much of what my first female boss did. As fragile as I was in my early 20s, being a new mom in that environment was a particular kind of hell. I ended up leaving with her words ringing in my ears: “You’re OK coming up with tactical promotions, but I don’t think you’ll do much more with your career.” I nicknamed her Cruella de Vil, went home, sobbed my heart out and went into a deep funk.
At this point I had to ask myself: if the only connection between these two horrible experiences was me, was I really as bad as they set me out to be? Following lots of introspection I then took a moment to look at them: My first female boss was recently divorced, with a couple of teenage kids who didn’t want to hang out with their mom anymore (I can now relate to that!); the second wasn’t in a relationship, had no kids and was 3000-percent married to her job. Maybe it was their own unhappiness in life that propelled them to being singularly hostile, or so I felt. Maybe I could have done things better or differently. But in the absence of any discussion, their fury found a home, and it was my soul that it got lodged in.
Here’s the reason why their behavior is especially insidious: As women, we’re already prone to impostor syndrome. I know I’m not the only one who sometimes questions her abilities and her right to be in the room. When women lash out at other women, we simply perpetuate insecurities that shouldn’t exist in the first place.
Did I learn anything from them? Hell yes I did!
Despite the pain they caused me, I chose to remain focused on being positive, helping others and supporting other women regardless of their level or experience. This is not to the detriment of my male colleagues. This is about ensuring that there is balance across the workforce and that women don’t get left behind. I’m a proud mentor to both men and women and hope to continue being one for years to come.
I happily connect good people to other good people because that’s what leaning in is for me. I go out of my way to reserve judgement when I recognize someone is struggling at work. I may not be able to fix it, but just maybe I can help redirect some of that fear and negativity to help diffuse that long walk off a short pier.
Now, as the senior advisor for the first-ever women’s group at my company, I have the privilege of interacting with 26 amazing women, and their enthusiasm, smarts and kindness fill me with joy. We are all leaning in—to each other. Long may this continue wherever they end up, because it’s not just enlightened men who need to help us lean in, and it’s not just our own responsibility either. To be heard, to be considered, to be part of the story is everyone’s responsibility.
Fredda Hurwitz is the newly appointed CMO of award-winning event marketing agency Red Peg. She previously served as global CSO of Havas Sports & Entertainment.