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knife in backIt’s 2015. Yet women still represent only a small percentage of senior management in U.S. business. What an opportunity! Diversity, including gender diversity, has resoundingly been linked with better financial results. So having more women in senior management should be a key goal of business leaders.

What is standing in the way of reaching that goal? Women’s can’t get off the hook. We have to ask what women are and are not doing. I’m not talking about how women individually behave – the focus of Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In. (Yes, it will probably help if women do more speaking up, asking for what they want, tooting their own horns and increasing their tolerance for risk.) I’m talking about how women treat and support each other.

In my workshops, I have been asked, “Why are women not more supportive of other women?” Or I’m told about a woman who undermined another woman or about a bad woman boss. And I hear stories of women who made it to the top and then “pulled up the ladder.” Among the worst phrases I hear are “cattiness,” “back-biting,” and sabotage.”

How true are the negative things? The phenomenon of women not supporting (or sabotaging) other women is clearly overblown. Minorities often get “painted with the same brush,” the bad acts of one member of the group being attributed to the entire group. If someone has had a bad male boss, he or she would never say, “Men are bad bosses.” But we observe a woman undermining another woman and conclude that “women do that.” Also, because there are few women at the upper levels of business, there is inordinate attention given to their behavior.

The negative is overblown, but there is room for improvement. Women are less likely than men to want a woman boss. Women bullies are reported to bully other women 70-80% of the time. One research study suggests that, with very few women at the executive level, they are compared to one another, creating competition. Women in leadership may want to avoid being seen as favoring women — and so overcompensate.

If we want improvement (more women supporting other women or supporting them more), it is helpful to understand the unconscious mind-sets (ways of thinking) that underlie negative behaviors. Here are three:

  •  Women are wired for close friendship in which two people are equals and share intimate secrets. Businesses tend to be hierarchical, and workplace relationships are what Pat Heim calls “friendly.” Managers demonstrate “executive distance” with subordinates. This kind of relationship between a “lower level” and “higher level” woman can disappoint (perhaps unconscious) expectations for close relationships. A woman may feel rejected by the more senior woman, take it personally and dislike the senior woman.


  •  Women absorb the same unconscious mind-sets from our culture that men do. Leadership has historically been defined in terms of masculine attributes (e.g., confidence and assertiveness), not feminine traits (e.g., collaboration and nurturing). Extremely feminine women are called unflattering terms like “bimbo”; business women don’t want to be identified with these stereotypes. They may disassociate from all that is feminine, becoming “honorary men” or “Queen Bees” — happy to be the only woman at the top.

Women may not like women who make it to the top. While success and likeability are positively correlated for        men, they are negatively correlated for women. Women, like men, trap women in the double bind — not seeing women who exhibit feminine styles as leaders, and calling women who operate in masculine styles a word starting with “B.”


  • Given the number of women in the upper ranks of business, it is natural to think of women getting a leadership spot as a zero sum game; if another woman gets a spot, that’s one less spot for me! A recent study showed the existence of “implicit quotas”; having one woman in a senior position makes it less, not more, likely there will be a second woman promoted! That makes it hard to celebrate the promotion of a woman and see it as a gain for women generally!

Do women sabotage or support other women at work? Yes! Awareness of the mind-sets that underlie the negative behaviors can enable us to change them. We can catch ourselves and change our thinking. Women can contribute to having more women reach the top. That’s good for women and good for the bottom line!

What is your experience working or leading other women?