PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, while speaking at the New York Times Women In The World Summit, addressed what is now being dubbed as the “sisterhood ceiling”. “I don’t believe women help women enough in the workplace,” she said, adding that all her mentors have been male. “What’s wrong with us women? We ought to be helping each other out.” This thought has also been expressed by a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology led by UCLA School of Management Assistant Professor Sun Young Lee. The study found that “women experience competition with women co-workers more negatively than men do because female peer culture values harmony and equality, and competition is at odds with the norm of female relationships.” In simple words, women pull each other down at work.
“Women experience competition with women co-workers more negatively than men do because female peer culture values harmony and equality, and competition is at odds with the norm of female relationships.” In simple words, women pull each other down at work.
Sallie Krawcheck, one of Wall Street’s most successful female players and former CEO of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, writing in Women’s Agenda, referred to this phenomenon the Queen Bee syndrome. Who is a Queen Bee? “(She is) the senior woman who doesn’t help other women advance, who may even kick the ladder out from under her when she reaches a top job,” explains Sallie, going on to cement her theory with a personal example of having been ‘Queen Bee’d’ as well. There are many others like Indra and Sallie, who, perhaps from their own experiences, firmly believe women do not lend a helping hand to other women at work. The reasons pointed out are many – ranging from women having to fight for the smaller piece of the pie to the lack of gender solidarity in the midst of a huge gender bias, making women revenge-seeking, emotional beings who cannot deal with conflict.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, is another group of women, like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who dismisses this theory calling it ‘the myth of catty women’. Sheryl has kicked off a new campaign to counter this notion through her Lean In foundation called Together We Can, in which she invites women to support and mentor each other, thereby promoting growth and development for both the women involved. The first step towards helping other women out is by identifying highly as a woman yourself. A study found that policewomen who highly identified as women went out of their way to create more opportunities for other women.
It has also been found that when women work with a higher percentage of women, they have to face lower levels of gender discrimination, and women workers who had a female boss reported a more family-supportive organisational structure.
In my professional life, too, I have had experiences that mirror what Sheryl puts forth. Most women co-workers or seniors have always been empathetic, have helped me rise to the top and have pulled me out of troubles. We can all do the same for women who work with us. Here are a few tips on how women can support each other at work.
Studies have found that men tend to be promoted on potential and women only on proven performance. It is common for those at work to overestimate men’s accomplishments and underplay those of women. Women, thus, need to work hard to get noticed. So, as women, what we can do is stand up for each other. The next time you talk about a woman at work, highlight her accomplishments and talk about her credentials. Don’t just stop at what she does in the company. Share what she does the best.
This might seem like a trivial detail, but it has been seen that women tend to gravitate towards the end of the table at meetings, even if it only included co-workers of the same level. Women speak lesser, are interrupted more and are not given due credit for their ideas. The next time you walk into a meeting, sit upfront for the sake of other women in your team. Speak up, and listen to women who do and if any woman is interrupted, step in to make others notice what happened. If you find male colleagues taking over any female co-worker’s ideas, speak up and remind others that she had spoken about it first.
Whatever stage in your career you are, you will be able to find a younger woman you can mentor. A good mentor can provide good advice and support the mentee through personal experience. If all your co-workers are at the same level as you are, understand that one person’s success need not always mean another person’s failure. Find projects you can work on together. If you have just begun your career, actively seek out a mentor and make good use of their time and advice.
At most companies, men are at decision-making posts and wield much of the power and influence. Women in senior positions should make sure that the men on top are sensitised enough to support women employees. They should advocate for policies that benefit women or speak up if they see that any management decision does so. They should take up with the management issues that women face in the organisation and make it a point that these complaints are taken seriously.
These may sound like small steps, but it is important to understand that such small drops come together to form an ocean. So every day, make it a point to celebrate your female co-workers. Only then can women surge ahead to success.