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Why Women Hate Working for Women

Is it too much to hope for a gender-neutral workplace?

| October 4th, 2012
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Weeks before beginning her new position at one of the country’s largest real estate developers, Olivia Myles* received an email from her soon-to-be-boss, Claire. “She told me, ‘You’re very intelligent and I so look forward to working with you,’ and I was thrilled,” Myles recalls. “Not only would I be working for a woman, but someone who understood that I was an untapped resource.” Then the job started and the story changed drastically. “It ended up being the opposite—an abusive and terrible relationship.”

Myles, 31, worked her way up from administrative assistant to San Francisco regional director of marketing, but not before transferring to a different team with a (male) manager who wasn’t trying to thwart her success, take credit for her work, leave her off important emails and callously shoot her down. “I think women are extremely competitive with each other in the work place,” Myles says. “Rather than solidarity there’s a schism.”

MORE: Three Ways to Relieve Stress At Work

Having clawed our way up from the steno pools of the 1950s, it’s heartening to see how well we’ve dug in. But we’re turning our claws on each other—and they’re sharp. Despite the fact that our current workplace contains three generations of women we can’t seem to shake off the struggle it took to get here, which leaves many feeling insecure, protective of their positions and apt to strike out at potential competitors.

Take a survey of your gal pals and you’re sure to find yourself awash in nightmarish tales of the Wicked Witch in the corner office. Indeed, a 2009 poll of 2,000 working girls by market research firm One Poll revealed that 63 percent would prefer to have a man as a direct manager. Respondents complained that women bosses tend to be overly emotional and often feel threatened by female subordinates.

But what about those attributes you think you’d want in a manager like empathy, emotional accessibility and compassion? Doesn’t that count for something? There’s a fine line. We want them to be friendly, but not too friendly. To listen, but not to pry. To relate, but not project. Are we setting ourselves up for unrealistic expectations that are bound to go unrealized?

“For me there’s always a basic ground rule,” says Camilla Bachman, a partner at a private equity firm. “If you’re determining someone’s salary then it’s difficult to be really true friends in the end.”

QUIZ: How Happy Are You With Life Now?

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