Unraveling the dynamics of women’s workplace rivalry

Madeleine Albright, the former United States Secretary of State, is famed for sharing in a Keynote speech at a luncheon back in 2006 that

 “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

Time and changing sentiments are unkind to many quotes, and this one is no exception. The irony that men not helping women is to be expected, but a woman not helping requires special punishment may have been unclear back then. But in today’s modern workplaces, this sentiment is misplaced and problematic. 

While women climbing the corporate ladder may still encounter occasional lack of support from senior women, we now at least have a deeper understanding, and hopefully greater empathy, for the reasons behind it.

Ways in which women feel unsupported by other women

We frequently hear from the women we coach and mentor that they experience microaggressions from other women in their workplaces, and numerous research studies suggest that this is indeed prevalent in our workplaces. This can take many forms, including:

  • Disassociating – excluding other women from important social relations, such as networking with only men.
  • Suppression of opportunity – involves how women subconsciously and/or reflexively suppress, block and deny other women access to resources and opportunities for progression.
  • Abject appearance – Where women silence and mark out what is acceptable amongst other women e.g. women telling other women that they should dress or talk a certain way.
  • Rejecting the existence of barriers holding women back – where women deny or downplay the existence of organisational bias e.g. women stating that they have been able to progress in the workplace and, therefore, there are no barriers for other women.

But why do women behave in this way?

The term we use to describe this type of behaviour is ‘internalised misogyny’. From an early age, girls are exposed to messages and stereotypes of how they ‘should’ behave, and these gender roles and expectations shape their self-perception. Media, family, school and workplaces all play a role in reinforcing these harmful stereotypes. Girls learn implicitly that their role in society is less valuable (Schuster & Clay, 2019). 

When women enter the workplace, they look around and quickly get the lay of the land. Our workplaces were designed by men for men, centuries ago. The rules of our workplaces are, therefore, masculine in nature. Women quickly and unconsciously realise there are ‘ingroups’ and ‘outgroups’. The ‘ingroup’, men, has the power, influence, social capital and a clear path to the top. The ‘outgroup’, women,  lack power, and influence and face considerable obstacles to achieving the same success as the ingroup. 

Women realise if they want to get ahead, they have a difficult choice to make. They can associate and align themselves with their group, and face the barriers and challenges that come with it. Or they can disassociate themselves from their group, and align themselves with the ingroup. 

This might involve assimilating and adopting a more masculine leadership style. Or covering part of themselves which might overtly signal they belong to the outgroup, such as not discussing their personal lives, their children or their need for more flexible working arrangements. Frequently it involved overtly making it clear that they do not belong to the outgroup, and this is where unsupportive behaviours toward other women can lie. 

Internalised misogyny in the workplace

Women experiencing internalised misogyny may inadvertently perpetuate gender biases. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that women with higher levels of internalised misogyny were more likely to engage in gender discrimination against their female peers (Gündemir & Homan, 2017). Ironically, internalised misogyny also negatively impacts the woman herself, affecting her confidence, decision-making, and interpersonal relationships. Women who internalise sexist attitudes may subconsciously undermine their abilities, leading to imposter syndrome and reduced job satisfaction (Catalyst, 2019). This phenomenon can have severe repercussions on women’s career advancement and opportunities for leadership roles. Women may hesitate to seek promotions or negotiate higher salaries, further widening the gender pay gap (Harvard Business Review, 2018).

What can be done?

Change can only be achieved when we dismantle the ingroup and outgroup dichotomy and the reality that one group has more power, influence and opportunity than the other. Achieving this requires our organisations to have equal gender representation at the most senior leadership levels. When women can see that they have equal power, influence and opportunity, there is no reason to dissociate from their gender. 

Many organisations already have this as a goal, target or aspiration. But progress is painfully slow and existing approaches have yet to bear fruit. This is because change requires a systemic, organisational approach rather than one that focuses on fixing women. It’s not about requiring women to assimilate or change to thrive within a masculine workplace culture, but about changing the culture itself. 

There are proven, evidence-based approaches that do work. They are not quick fixes, and they do require focus, investment and culture change. We are touching on solutions this week in our Gender Pay Gap in APAC webinar, which is open to all.

Rather than writing a one-way ticket to that special place in hell, we need to recognise that unsupportive behaviour from women is often an unconscious coping mechanism to survive in our still male-dominated workplaces. Putting the focus and blame back onto individual women misdirects what is really going on, and avoids the need to find more systemic solutions.