You don’t need me to tell you this: Women, especially women of color, lost more at work and took on more at home during this pandemic than their male peers. It is clear that we need a policy revolution. But we also need a revolution of community and support, both now and after the pandemic is over. Connection with each other will help women recover and restart their working lives.
During my nearly 30 interviews about rejection at work, the value of connection with other women was a recurring theme. Below are three strategies for finding and creating your own support network during (and after) this trying time.
If you are struggling, assume that others are, too. Our tendency is to do the opposite; there is even a psychological term for it: pluralistic ignorance. During my interviews, I saw that one key to forming networks of support was a willingness to admit to the struggle, to be vulnerable and open. Not right away, of course, and not before forming relationships. But eventually, members of support groups and networks were willing to share their fears, failures and, of course, successes.
One example of this came from Polly Rodriguez, 34. The experience of working in a sexist, male-dominated start-up convinced Rodriguez that she had what it took to create her own. She did some market research and learned about the sex toy industry — “how massive and bad it was,” she said — and decided to start her sexual wellness company, Unbound.
According to Rodriguez, at first, she was rejected from 75 percent of accelerators and pitch competitions. “People were just like, ‘This is inappropriate. We couldn’t have you come pitch here,’” she recalled. Meanwhile, she became aware of other new companies founded on sex positivity and education, and she decided to get in touch.
The first official meeting of the group, which included 10 people, made Rodriguez realize she wasn’t alone. It evolved into what is now called Women of Sex Tech, which includes “250 femme and nonbinary founders.” During the pandemic, membership grew, and the organization held a virtual conference with more than 600 attendees from all over the globe.
Rodriguez has also made close friends through the group, and she even formed a “pandemic pod” with two other sex-tech founders. “We have dinner together every other week and talk about all things business and life,” Rodriguez said. “If it weren’t for them, I don’t know if I’d still be working on Unbound.”
How did Rodriguez get this group off the ground? Her first steps were searching LinkedIn to find people in the same industry, and then mutual connections. Rodriguez said she would ask for introductions, and then, “I wrote compelling messages about how I thought they were building something important.” She initiated coffee dates, and grew relationships, one by one. When she started to feel like she was having the same conversation with each founder “five nights of the week over (many) glasses of wine,” she proposed that everyone get together to form an alliance of sorts.
Are there people in your line of work who you would normally see as competitors but might be experiencing the same challenges that you are? Consider what you might be able to offer each other. Once you establish an initial connection, a pandemic world might actually be a great context for meeting — our current Zoom-focused life lowers the barrier to “face-to-face” (if virtual) conversation.
There are all kinds of benefits that come from connecting with others who care deeply about the same things you do. Writer Michelle Tea told me that “everything I’ve ever gotten has really been through other writers helping me and the literary community.”
Ally Einbinder, bassist for the band Potty Mouth, had a major professional disappointment during the pandemic. All was going well — Potty Mouth was named best LA Punk Band by LA Weekly and was set to embark on a first-ever U.K. tour during the spring of 2021. The band was devastated when it was canceled. However, they connected via Zoom with the other artists meant to be on the tour. Together, they decided to develop an album, the proceeds of which would go toward LGBTQ youth initiatives. In March 2021, they released an album: “Sunday, Someday,” described as “A Compilation Album of Friends Who Meet on Sundays.”
Einbinder told me that it was sustaining to work collaboratively on music, as well as raise money for causes that mean something to her. Over time, she added, the group “has been my greatest source of joy and biggest support of the past year.”
This strategy could work for anyone. What do you and your colleagues have to offer? What causes are meaningful to you? You might find a local nonprofit thrilled by volunteers who can offer spreadsheet-making or data analysis or newsletter-writing. Collaborating to offer your skills can be satisfying — you’re working together and doing something that you’re good at — and it builds group bonds.
Finishing a novel is a great goal — but instead of a book club, what if you started a “rejection club”? Working with friends or colleagues to practice seeking out and hearing the word “no” could help you build resilience; if you’ve lost work or are looking to change careers, it could help you practice putting yourself out there. I recently ran a group like this with college students, who reported becoming more bold when given this “permission” to seek out rejection.
I got the idea from Laura Huang, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of “Edge: Turning Adversity Into Advantage,” who creates community within her classroom by having students participate in an exercise called “Get 10 Nos.” The point is to practice healthy risk-taking because, according to Huang, it is essential for creative endeavors in any field, including business.
Huang’s students interact with a range of people and make cool discoveries to get their 10 “nos.” For example, they might reach out to professors for research opportunities, or they might ask a friend for a ride to the grocery store. But they might also get “face time” with interesting authors or entrepreneurs by simply asking, with the expectation that they will probably get rejected. Huang told me that her students learn people are more likely to say yes than one may think.
Any of us could do this with one or two people or a larger group, making a list of what to ask for and starting small. A young professional might ask a friend who is skilled at photography to take a LinkedIn (or Tinder) photo; a parent might ask another family for a babysitting swap. Take notes before and after an “ask.” What helps you feel okay when asking — and even when hearing no? Then share these findings when you come together. The group can encourage each other to get outside of their comfort zones, preparing for career-related “asks” like promotions or raises, or other useful things like connections during a job search.
Making yourself vulnerable in this way, sharing successes and failures, can help build bonds with colleagues. Whether you reach out to competitors, gather over what moves you, or do “rejection push-ups,” these ties to other women will probably make you feel stronger. Social connections contribute to our well-being and health, and studies have found that female friendships in particular can help lower stress.
We have borne so much stress during this pandemic as we have supported those close to us — now we can reach out to each other as we emerge.
This piece was adapted from “The Rejection That Changed My Life: 25+ Powerful Women on Being Let Down, Turning It Around, and Burning It Up at Work” by Jessica Bacal, with permission from Plume, an imprint of The Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Jessica Bacal