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Mean girls at work

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In the decades-long battle to fix gender inequity in the workplace, it seems we’ve been overlooking an obvious part of the problem. Underlying much of the work to create gender parity has been the assumption that women have more value and contributions than they’ve been given opportunities and credit for, and that men, in particular, need educating that this is the case. While workplace studies show women are routinely underestimated compared to men, we don’t give much credence to the fact that women hampering other women is also to blame.

In nearly every leadership talk I give, whether to the women’s network of a Fortune 500 company or to incoming female MBA students, I actively steer away from this topic. Why? It’s not terribly productive and can quickly devolve into a venting session where people swap one nightmarish story after another about scheming female bosses.

But even if I don’t bring this issue up in a women’s forum, someone will invariably—and I mean always—raise her hand and ask me the same question. “What about women who thwart other women’s success?” 

It’s time these reports from the trenches get their due. 

Many of us have witnessed the man who comments on a woman’s hotness just as she leaves the room. But what about the woman who criticizes another’s appearance (Did you see what she was wearing in there?) or frowns on a woman’s unapologetic use of power (Just who does she think she is?)?

Months ago, I was surprised to experience firsthand one more form of women belittling other women. I was in the speaker’s lounge at an international women’s conference, and about 14 female CEOs and high-ranking women were gathered around a conference table – most of whom were 20 years my senior. My attempts at friendly introductions and, even more so, my interjections into conversation were greeted with awkward silence, averted eyes and splintered conversations. Being “iced out” is a strange thing indeed at a forum meant to convene women, share information and level the power. And yet, I’m not the only one who’s experienced this. 

The factors that fuel women to dismiss, critique or compete with one another are many. Catty media portrayals are an obvious starting place, in that they rarely do women any favors. We’re more likely to see women undercutting, conspiring, even slapping one another on TV than to see them being civil or respectful. And young women are taking notice. Kate White, who’s written books about mean girls (and is also the editor in chief of Cosmopolitan magazine), polled her readers on the subject and found that 82 percent agree that women have in fact gotten meaner.

Perhaps women who reach top leadership levels suffer a form of sexism amnesia. They may forget what it’s like to be junior, to have little sway, and to be underestimated as a young woman. When they finally do get to the top, they adopt the mindset of those around them and gloss over their past struggles. Even harsher is the sink-or-swim school of thought whose club motto is, “I was treated like dirt on my way up, so you should be too.” 

No, it doesn’t wipe the slate clean, but perhaps mean girls are just as hypercritical of themselves as they are of other women. In their book Mean Girls, Meaner Women , coauthors Drs. Erika Holiday and Joan Rosenberg note, “…Self-hatred is the key link between girls’ early hurtful behavior toward each other and women who suppress other women. A woman with a strong sense of self and high self esteem is much less likely to hurt others.” The authors explain that women are socialized from an early age to avert, rather than express anger, and to feel that any expression of anger whatsoever is wrong. Perhaps this is how the wires get crossed, making appropriate anger morph into backdoor, gossipy, passive-aggressive behavior.

The way a woman speaks about other women, moreover, seeps right into the minds of our children. One recent study showed that mothers have more of a role in passing down damaging and sexist beliefs about women than do dads. Mothers are the figures who have greater influence in the transference of discriminatory behavior, and thus the opportunity to pass on more fair-minded behavior as well.   

But if there’s one observation I make about many professional women today—particularly working moms—it’s that they’re “doing it all,” burdened with too many demands to count and moving through life at breakneck speed. Kate Sayre and Michael J. Silverstein, coauthors of the book Women Want More , found that women’s happiness, when correlated to age, is V-shaped. Meaning, women are happiest between the ages of 18 and 25 and then again after age 50 when, for many, these converging life demands are less pronounced.

Given that expectations on women are at an all-time high, it seems there could be some comfort had in sharing the common passages of being a woman.  So I have to wonder, where’s the solidarity and sisterhood?

Selena Rezvani is author of the new book, The Next Generation of Women Leaders: What You Need to Lead but Won’t Learn in Business School and co-president of Women’s Road Map.

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