Isn’t the way women treat each other a bigger problem?

Women thrive at work when they are mentored by men. But isn’t the way women treat each other a bigger problem?  

Hiring managers should evaluate job postings and recruitment techniques to ensure gender-balanced talent pools. But isn’t the way women treat each other a bigger problem?  

Professional networking or teambuilding events should be inclusive, which may mean evaluating venues, activities, and timing of events to ensure appeal to both genders. But isn’t the way women treat each other a bigger problem?  

No conversation about gender balance and the role men can play is complete without the defense, But isn’t the way women treat each other a bigger problem?  

The first time I was asked about how badly women treat one another, I stumbled. I agreed that women should be more kind, but without an idea of what needed to change. I had accepted the notion that women were hypercompetitive with one another without any real-life examples of mean girls at work. I began to wonder if this meanness was real or just an idea picked up in childhood fairy tales about evil stepsisters and wicked witches. I wished for another chance to engage in this conversation.

Without my own evidence, I began asking other women for their stories: They told me about one colleague—who happened to be female—voting against a promotion; one manager—who happened to be female—not providing mentorship. These were tales of bad female managers or bad female colleagues, but the bad acting was general, not directed toward women. In other words: Yes, there are some bad female leaders and co-workers… and they are bad regardless of their colleagues’ gender.

The idea of backstabbing women is everywhere; the reality is not.

As I continued to consider memes about women straightening each other’s crowns and special places in Hell for those who do not support one another, I tried to recall times when I have felt unexplainably competitive with other women in business.

A few examples surfaced: A peer suggesting I declined a subordinate’s request to go to an unbudgeted conference because she was young and pretty; colleagues asking if I took it personally when another woman ran for the same board as me (but not asking about the man who did); a group bet about whether a female professional acquaintance or I could run a faster mile. None of these were based on professional capacity. All of them demonstrated that in the workplace, women are often evaluated by how they compare to other women in areas that have nothing to do with the job.

There is a systemic bias present in the way women are evaluated at work that is not an issue of girls with their claws out, cat-fighting for position as suggested by the comment, But isn’t the way women treat each other a bigger problem? In fact, in the examples above, the comments were initiated by men. Comparing women on issues other than capability is not exclusive to how women judge themselves or one another.

At the 2017 Global Women’s Leadership Network Breakfast, keynote speaker Kristin Soltis Anderson said that women today face a challenge where, “You can be anything has become you must be everything.” Women are only labeled successful when they have thriving careers, successful marriages, and Pinterest-worthy parenting skills, but individuals rarely measure up to these high standards. If a woman must hold herself to “leaning in” in every area of life, how are her expectations of other women perceived? I wondered at first if this—the way women treat themselves, not one another—is where the belief that women are unkind to one another originated.

Women practicing more “I am enough” self-talk in the mirror will not create gender balance, though. The “must be everything” measuring stick is not a product of the female imagination. It comes from navigating a complicated double bind, not a lack of self-confidence.

Here is the double bind: It is nearly impossible to meet typical societal definitions of both a good woman and a good leader. The overlapping section in a Venn Diagram comprised of one circle that encompasses what a woman should be and one circle that represents traits of a strong leader is a very small area. If a woman works to embody more “good leader” traits, it can disrupt social norms. Without being able to put a finger on what feels off, people make comments like, “she is abrasive” or “I’m not comfortable working with her” to justify not selecting her for new opportunities. When she is not promoted, well-meaning colleagues encourage her to soften a little, be more agreeable, or build stronger personal connections.

Blaming individual women for not getting along better with others is flawed. It denies the systemic issues that women face in the workplace and leaves us pointing to the wrong type of evidence to support the idea of the female career saboteur. For example, the fact there have been only three female-to-female CEO transitions in Fortune 500 history, or that GM is one of only three Fortune 500 companies to be led by both a female CEO and a female CFO does not prove that women do not adequately support other women.

Instead, consider that the female CEO carries the burden of being a strong leader while tiptoeing the line of not being a bad woman. As women work to define themselves as good leaders, it can be easier to avoid actions that draw attention to gender or create remarkability of the female CEO. This includes steering clear of what may be perceived as unbalanced support to female subordinates.

It is remarkable when a female CEO grooms a female subordinate to be a successor. A woman who wants to be viewed simply as a strong leader might intentionally avoid this remarkable behavior: While she would never sabotage another woman’s opportunities, she also may not want to be perceived as overly emphatic about women’s advancement. (If you are a male reading this: Have you ever mentored a male subordinate and wondered if people would accuse you of favoritism because you were mentoring another man? I would love to hear from you.)

If I have the chance to answer the question again, But isn’t the way women treat each other a bigger problem? I am ready:

No. It is not a bigger probem. The female career saboteur seems to be an urban legend created by a systemic bias that will not be fixed by individual behavioral changes. We must acknowledge that women are too often evaluated—and often penalized– in professional settings by standards that have nothing to do with professional capacity. Then, we must address these challenges or we will continue to miss out on the value realized by achieving gender balance.

Jill Nowacki

Jill Nowacki

Jill Nowacki started her career with credit unions in 2001. She has taken on leadership roles at credit unions and state and national trade associations. Now, she uses her experience ... Web: Details

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