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.”
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.”
Being a mentor, sounding board and a source for honest criticism and advice among your female subordinates, while still maintaining power and distance is a sensitive balance that’s hard to strike. It’s widely observed that female bosses are either seen as effective or likeable, but rarely both, according to Catalyst, an advisory non-profit specializing in women in the workplace. Male bosses, meanwhile, don’t face the same dichotomy of perception. And though women make up nearly half the workforce and slightly more than half of all managerial positions, the higher up the ladder you look the fewer skirts you see. Only 24 percent of chief executives in the country are women. Within Fortune 500 companies, that number is even smaller: Only 14 percent of corporate officer, president and VP positions are held by women, up a paltry point and a half since 2000.
Having fewer female examples to aspire to can increase competition among women, even among those who hold very different positions in an organization. Lauren Han, 32, a vice president at a private equity firm found this with the boss-lady at her previous private equity job: “She was trying to find her role within a male-dominated group. But she acted like she was in competition with me rather than with those at her own level.”
Elia Kahn was a senior IT consultant in Atlanta working with international telecommunications clients. Her manager was one of few executive women, and was intent on becoming part of the boys’ club. She’d exclude Kahn and other team members from discussions with higher-ups, new sales opportunities and client dinners, in unending efforts to elevate her own status among male execs. Kahn marvels at the misguidedness of this approach: “I was in no position to threaten her success. I could only have helped her.”
Tory Johnson, CEO of recruitment services firm Women for Hire, has observed that women who say they have problems with their female bosses, often have different—perhaps elevated—expectations of a lady boss than they would of a man. “And while many women managers feel some sense of obligation to take care of other women, at the end of the day their responsibility is to deliver results. Period.”
It’s a double edged sword, say researchers at Catalyst. When women in positions of authority conform to the nurturing stereotype, they’re viewed as too soft, or incompetent. If they don’t, they’re seen as mean and unfeminine.
Mary O’Rourke, 60, a former admissions officer at a prestigious acting school, found herself in a difficult position when she was promoted above her longtime associate. “She was so resistant to me, constantly complaining about me. You can’t assume that we’re going to be buddy-buddy just because we’re both women. There has to be respect from subordinate to superior,” she says.
It’s natural for women to align themselves with one another and develop relationships that straddle the border between colleague and friend. But his tendency can be dangerous. Women are prone to getting swept up in each other’s personal affairs and that can swiftly get out of hand, leading to gossip-mongering and popularity contests befitting teenagers, not professionals.
“There’s a gray area,” notes Jessica Cooper, an account executive for a Minneapolis printing company. “It is hard to be talking about the latest dish one minute and taking directives the next.”
When Andrea Combs left her job at an event planning agency, she was finally free of Allison and Malory, a duo of difficult and contemptuous overlords who had made her life miserable for two and a half years. There was always a pervasive and senseless rivalry between the two. “Neither wanted me in the first place,” she says, “but they were both vying for my attention. If I got on well with one, the other would clearly be pissed. It was very junior high school.”
Women for Hire’s Johnson warns that it’s convenient to jump to conclusions—she’s mean to me because I’m [fill in the blank] younger, thinner, prettier, have a social life. But rather than looking for convenient excuses, take it as sign that there may be aspects of your work that need to be improved upon. If a male boss gave you the same review you’d take note, so why dismiss honest criticism because of their gender?
The reality is there’s no such thing as a fully desexualized workplace. Rebecca Axelrod, a 37-year-old publicist in New York City, is a six-foot blonde with a killer blowout and a knack for chatting up clients. She thought working for an older woman would eliminate rivalrous tendencies, but envy always seems to rear its head in the end. “It’s hard to be smart and a little glamorous and work with a woman,” Axelrod concludes. “Women are inherently crazy when it comes to other women. The office has never been gender neutral, and it’s never going to be.”
*Some names have been changed.
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