How much do women really help other women in the workplace?


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But a new study released Tuesday from Catalyst, a nonprofit research organization that focuses on the advancement of women in the workplace, found those images to be a myth, at least among their study subjects. In “Leaders Pay it Forward,” the most recent in a series of reports that have been following high-potential MBAs through their careers, Catalyst found that women are actually more likely than men to develop other talent within their companies. In its study, 65 percent of women who received career development support are now helping others get ahead, compared to 56 percent of men. Meanwhile, 73 percent of the women developing new talent are developing women, compared to only 30 percent of men.

The study also found that “paying it forward pays back:” those who took an active role in developing others in their organizations saw $25,075 in additional compensation between 2008 and 2010, the report found. While it’s doubtful the relationship between mentoring and higher pay was causal, Catalyst says people who take time to sponsor others become more visible and manage to earn a greater following among people in the organization, which can help them get ahead.

Still, the notion that women don’t help other women is likely to persist—and there could be some truth to it. Diane Brady, in a great column for Bloomberg BusinessWeek, points to new research from Olin Business School, which found that senior-level women don’t support high-potentials who could become their peers. In three different experiments, assistant professor Michelle Duguid found that because women are often the token female on a senior team, they are concerned about appearing biased toward other women. Or, they are threatened by adding women to their groups, either because they might be better leaders or worse performers, reinforcing stereotypes they’re looking to destroy.

That gets at the heart of the matter, I believe. The women in Catalyst’s study are all high-potential MBAs, but as of two years ago, at least, many of the women in this study were still in mid-level or first-level managerial roles, where they are less likely to be the only woman among their peers. One wonders if these women’s feelings about helping other women might change when they reach the top ranks. I’d like to think they wouldn’t, but sadly, it’s possible.

To me, the problems associated with being the token member of any group are one of the big reasons organizations need to do more to promote women. It is not until women reach a critical mass at the senior-most levels that fears of bias will fall away, that truly candid discussions can take place in boardrooms, and that performance can be enhanced by the benefits that real diversity, rather than tokenism, can bring.

I’m encouraged to see that more women are helping women—and men—get ahead, so that these annoying stereotypes might end. But until women don’t find themselves the lone female on senior teams, it could be difficult to end them. Yes, women play a role in changing this. So do the companies that employ them.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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