Women often tell me their worst boss has been a woman. Perhaps because most of us have had fewer women bosses than men bosses, we tend to generalize – paint all women bosses with the same brush – by saying things like, “Women are lousy bosses.” If we have had a bad male boss, we don’t think “all men are lousy bosses.”
Women who treat other women badly give us all a bad name. Ask someone what they have observed about women working together and you may hear about sabotage, cattiness or Queen Bees (women who make it to the top and “pull up the ladder,” to mix metaphors). I include an appendix in my book, and wrote an article for Forbes WomensMedia, on the topic of why women sometimes do not support other women (and how important it is for women to support both more junior and more senior women).
In the case of women with “bad” women bosses, there is often a generational difference. Usually the more senior woman is older, maybe a Baby Boomer, while the subordinate is a member of Gen X or a Millennial. We know about inter-generational tensions; each generation tends to hold judgments about other generations. I recently wrote about the intersection of gender and generational differences. I focused on how inter-generational tensions surface among women in particular. Women judge other women about choices about having children, using day care or the priority given to career. They judge other women about how they dress or look.
These particular kinds of conflict among women seem to have greater intensity than the generational conflicts among men. In general, though, tensions between a subordinate woman and her female boss have more to do with gender than generational differences. Most workplaces are modeled on hierarchy, a masculine form. Women tend to be more comfortable in a flatter, more networked structure. Women can do odd things when placed in a hierarchical relationship with another woman – like try to pull her back down to our level. As noted by Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In and in “The Confidence Gap” in Atlantic Magazine, women tend to act with less confidence or self-assertion. The tendency by women to diminish their own worth rather than toot their horn may contribute to a general (unconscious) sense that women do not “deserve” to be in the top positions. Women, like men, in the U.S. are influenced by a culture that generally supports that notion.
Conflict among women at different levels in the organization is much more complex than just the issues that drive inter-generational conflict. These are deeply rooted gender issues that just happen to show up in an inter-generational context.
Do you agree?