WHEN I speak about the importance of achieving gender diversity at leadership levels of business, I am often asked, “Why are women not more supportive of other women?” Generally the question is preceded by a story of a woman who undermined or was tough on another woman.
In my workshops, I’ve heard women talk about bad women bosses. And I hear stories of women who made it to the top and then made no effort to help other women join them there. Among negative things said about women is that they are catty, sabotage each other or simply do not extend a hand to other women through mentoring. Some commentators have suggested that women’s failure to support other women is one reason there aren’t more women at the top.
How true is this dismal picture? And, if it is at all true, how do we make it less so?
On the positive side: I also hear stories in my workshops about women being great bosses, mentors and supporters. Catalyst recently reported that women are more likely to develop other women—and people in general, asserting that this evidences the end of the “myth” of the Queen Bee. (A Queen Bee prefers being the only woman at the top and has little interest in having other women join her there.) Another study reports that women are better leaders in part because they are better mentors.
On the negative side: Women are less likely than men to want a woman boss—and more likely to feel distressed by it. Women bullies are reported to bully other women 80% of the time. One research study suggests that, when there are very few women at the executive level, they get compared to one another, leading to competition; it concludes that women in leadership want to avoid being seen as favoring women (and so overcompensate?).
So the phenomenon of women sabotaging other women is real. It is also overblown. The acts of minorities are more likely to be generalized to their group than members of the group in power. Minorities get painted with the same brush as group members who behave badly. In terms of power in the business world, women are “minorities.” One would never say, “I had a bad male boss so men are bad bosses.” But we observe a woman undermining another woman and conclude that women undermine other women. We hear stories about a woman imposing higher standards on a female subordinate and determine that women are tougher on other women. The same people who report negative experiences with women, when asked, admit they have also experienced or seen women being supportive–and acknowledge men aren’t always great to work with either.
As long as women are minorities at the leadership levels of business, they will be subject to the “same paintbrush” effect. In an article on this topic entitled “Queen Bees, Mentors and the Female Boss Problem,” Diane Brady noted that the very under-representation of women in the upper ranks of business is a reason the behavior of senior women is watched so closely. She concludes, “As the numbers increase, researchers may find they’re surrounded by nurturers, queen bees, and other types that display the same breadth of leadership qualities as do the men . . . .”
I want to effect change on both points. I want women to be proportionally represented in leadership so the paintbrush effect no longer operates. And I want women to stop undermining other women and become champions for women—so more women make it to the top! I optimistically believe that, when women become aware of how they behave with other women at work—and understand what underlies unsupportive behaviors—they can change. The first step on 12-step programs is admitting that we have a problem. I devote a chapter of my book to helping women understand why they can be unsupportive of other women. To quote myself, “By grasping why they do what they do, women can examine their own thoughts and behaviors and make different (conscious) choices about their own behaviors and attitudes.”
Consider these factors that, when operating at the unconscious level, drive unsupportive behavior among women at work. Understanding them is the starting point for changing them:
Women are raised in the same culture as men. Women as well as men learn to identify leadership with masculine attributes like assertiveness and confidence, not feminine traits such as collaboration and nurturing. Extremely feminine women are called unflattering terms like “girly girl” and “airhead”; business women don’t want to be identified with these stereotypes. As a result,
• Some women will disassociate from all that is feminine, becoming “honorary men”—or Queen Bees, and
• Women, like men, trap women in the double bind—viewing women who exhibit feminine ways as weak and women who operate in “too” masculine a way as “b___es.”
The solution is to become conscious of our internalized biases and of the strengths of feminine ways of working and leading.
Women are wired for close friendship, relationships in which the parties are equals and secrets are shared. Businesses tend to be hierarchical, and relationships are what Pat Heim calls “friendly.” Business people learn the importance of “executive distance” in their relationships with subordinates. This can be confusing or disappointing to women in their workplace relationships with women of higher rank. Women may need to distinguish between their personal and work friends.
Given the under-representation of women in the upper ranks of business, it is natural that we tend to think of leadership spots as scarce. It’s a zero sum game; if another woman gets a spot, that’s one less spot for me! In her recent article on how much women help other women in the workplace, Jena McGregor makes the point that the very fact women are under-represented drives non-supportive behaviors. Women must recognize that the promotion of another woman can increase acceptance of women leaders generally; celebrate it!
Women still bear more responsibility for children and household—or want to hurry home for family time. There simply isn’t time to socialize after work or mentor. The combination of the lower number of women in leadership positions and the time pressures on women at upper levels works against there being enough women mentors for high-potential women. Senior women need to set aside time to be known by and to mentor other women; more junior women need to ask for mentoring.
Women tend to avoid conflict or handle conflict indirectly—and may hold onto a “grudge” for a long time. When women have a disagreement about a work issue, it can have a personal dimension. If the disagreement is with another woman, in particular, bad feelings can linger. Women need to understand this tendency and try to take things less personally at work—and find healthy ways to get over a conflict.
Do women sabotage or support other women at work? They do both! Understanding why they sometimes sabotage can give women the ability and desire to support other women more. And that can contribute to having more women reach the top. That’s good for women and good for business!