Reflections on Women Sharing Wisdom

I spent Thursday afternoon in Annapolis at the fourth annual Microsoft Mid-Atlantic Retreat for C-level women who are clients of Microsoft. The program was perfectly designed to allow for retreat in the best senses of the word.

In other words, for two days the Marriott in Annapolis became a place where:

You can let down your defenses

You can reveal yourself

You can reflect

You can work on the persistent thorns in your side that get pushed aside in

the hurly burly of every day work life

You are supported by others like yourself

I know I’m making it sound like a psychoanalytic bonanza. It wasn’t. The two-day conference was very practical, down to earth and filled with fun, funny touches. But for me, the excitement was how freeing it is for high-performing executive women to be with other top-level women and to watch them appreciate how different they are from C-level men.

Deborah Rosado Shaw, a consultant, author and masterful presenter, underscored this distinction in large and small ways during the afternoon session. And as each work group stood to present its decisions about best practices, I was captivated by their comments and Deborah’s insightful guidance.

I spent a long time in my earlier careers thinking that there really was no difference in what men and women could achieve – and how they did it. But after a lot of years and working with so many highly successful women on letters to their younger selves, I think the differences are important to know—and to celebrate.

At the conference these distinctions came out in lively discussions about crying at work and carving out time for yourself. Seeing the instant acceptance these women expressed toward each other, I was reminded of a recent UCLA study that suggests that women respond to stress with a cascade of brain chemicals that cause them to make and maintain friendships with other women.

Believe it or not, this finding overturned five decades of stress research. Until this study, scientists believed that the “fight or flight” response was the predominant response to stress. But it turns out that women, who had mostly not been part of past studies, respond differently to stress. They tend to children and gather with other women instead, which releases a hormone that reduces stress and generates calm.

What a relief it would be if women in largely male-shaped cultures—which is what most corporations are—could drop the notion that they must adopt all of the unspoken goals and practices of that culture. What a relief it would be if they could revel in their own approach. Fighting never has really appealed to me. Nor has crushing my opponents under the heel of my boot.

Those aren’t activities embraced by every male or every corporation, of course. But I’m sure I’m not the first woman in a company who believed she was supposed to be getting motivated by such aggressive mind-sets. And not the first to wonder what was wrong with me that, secretly, I could care less about duking it out with my colleagues in business meetings or slaughtering the competition.

I’m convinced that owning who you really are and seeing that person achieving what you want in your mind’s eye is the first, most important and most long-lasting step toward success.