Friends for Life

This professional women’s support group has become very personal

June 12, 2020
Article By Cara McDonough

I wasn’t too keen on the idea at first. A few of my husband’s female colleagues were starting a professional support group and wondered if I wanted to join. It sounded too self-help-y for my taste, but I liked these women so I figured, why not?

The rules were simple. We’d meet once a month over dinner. Each participant would state how many minutes they’d like to have, to present current challenges, successes and whatever else, followed by feedback from the others, all managed by that month’s facilitator.

The concept was based on a book, “Every Other Thursday” by Ellen Daniell, about several female academic scientists who’d formed just this sort of group in the 1970s (which made sense because, besides me – a writer – the other women are biologists and were post-docs at Yale when we began).

I quickly changed my tune. The sessions were a brilliant manifestation of the best of female friendships, offering a confidential sounding board. Our meetings in the four years since have covered petty and momentous issues, from communicating with coworkers to applying for jobs, and personal subjects, including infertility, divorce, and depression. I’ve discussed writing woes, but also the challenges of scheduling life with three children and processing grief after my father died in 2017.

As some members have moved and in-person meetings are no longer a reality, our tight group of five has kept up using online conferencing to allow for face time, with plenty of text updates along the way (in the months since writing this story, our needs and work have made meetings less frequent, but we still keep in close contact and lean on each other for support whenever we need it).

Our coterie, which we casually refer to by a few different names – including simply “group” (as Daniell calls it in her book) or my favorite, “fight club” – has become incredibly important to us. I wanted to explore the reasons why, and encourage other women to start their own support groups, no matter their line of work.

My friend Stephanie Shames, who started our group and has remained the de facto leader, is a big part of our success: she makes sure the five of us “meet” monthly if possible, by determining dates and sending reminders, and keeps a rotating schedule of facilitators.

“I started this group when I was feeling hopeless about my prospects,” says Shames, now an assistant professor in the Division of Biology at Kansas State University. “I was struggling professionally, felt isolated, and thought that my career goals were unattainable. Starting this group was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I can honestly say that this support gave me the leg-up I needed to get where I am today. Having regular meetings gave me an outlet. Instead of feeling crushed under the weight of negative feelings, I could write them down for discussion in a couple of weeks.”

Looking forward to meetings – knowing I’ll have allotted time to share feelings and receive advice – is undoubtedly helpful. I’m lucky to have a roster of supportive friends and family, but the structure of our group is uniquely comforting. Knowing I can bring up a worrisome issue at our next session often helps me feel better immediately.

Meetings also serve as a motivational goalpost. Sometimes I’ll send out a story pitch by that month’s gathering so I can share the accomplishment.

Camille Konopnicki-Vincent, another friend and group member who works at a clinical-stage biotech company, concurs. “The mantra, ‘I should do this because it terrifies me’ was born out of our meetings!” she says. “It’s been refreshing to so openly discuss things that challenge us, and identify how they will undeniably make us stronger.”

Carolyn Mazure, a professor of psychiatry and psychology, and the director of women’s health research at Yale, says that continuity and trust are probably the most important factors in starting a group. “The concept of professional support groups is terrific. Yet, often, they don’t function well, and then they are not sustained over time, at best.”

Mazure says two points are important. First, members must agree on ground rules and structure. She suggests questions to define both, including: What is the point of meeting? What is our shared understanding of how we will conduct ourselves? Can someone attend occasionally, or must it be regularly? Are there topics that cannot be on the agenda? Can we share any content from the group with others? And when I say others, does this include spouses, partners, best friends – with no exceptions?

“Second,” she says, “the process of answering these questions helps bring people together and builds investment in the group as well as trust in the parameters of the group.” Identifying priorities takes a while and goals may evolve over time. That’s OK, she says.

We’ve happily become stronger over the years. Because we were friends already, we never wrote out hard rules, although they’re understood: what happens in meetings stays in meetings (unless stated otherwise); we jointly discuss inviting new members before doing so; no topics are forbidden.

Then the basics: we meet monthly – or as often as possible if monthly doesn’t work – in the evening, now via Google Hangouts; if someone can’t make it, they can catch up next time; each member determines how long they’d like to share (usually between five and 20 minutes), followed by a brief period of feedback. And we aren’t sticklers – if a member needs more time than they originally thought, or wants lots of feedback, that’s fine. We enjoy a social vibe. We had wine during our in-person meetings, but other groups might find that distracting.

Makeup of a group may also play a role. While women working even in dissimilar fields can find commonality, a group composed solely of coworkers could devolve into office gossip.

As long as the details are worked out mutually, says Mazure, the results can be significant.

“Professional women have had life-long experiences of not being included. Then, after being invited into committee meetings and various groups, having the experience of being invisible,” she says. “Now, women are increasingly present, not invisible, but still not entirely recognized or heard. This group is designed to build an experience that is different.”

I’ve been thinking about our support system following the #MeToo movement. While we have analyzed minor incidences – unwelcome pick-up attempts by men at conferences, for instance – so far, no member has shared an experience as egregious as those popping up regularly in the media. If one did arise, I believe we’d be well-equipped to discuss it, and offer sound advice.

Whatever the issues, it’s my sincere hope that our “fight club” exists for the long haul.

“I love how our professional support group has turned into a supportive friend group!” my friend Shames wrote during one of our texting marathons.

I do, too. It was during one meeting a few years ago when it became abundantly clear that the bonds we’ve forged seamlessly merge professional support with real friendship – camaraderie at its finest. My friend, and long-term group member, Carole Kuehl-Mannetho, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, asked her husband Pat to join her at the computer in a normally taboo move. The rest of us widened our eyes in anticipation, and they announced she was about three months pregnant with their first child.

We forgot about workplace concerns, and united in a gleeful, long-distance cheer.

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