Women in Leadership: Sometimes We’re Our Own Worst Enemies

Women in Leadership: Sometimes We’re Our Own Worst Enemies

“My experience with my boss was upsetting. I was the only female in her team and I think she felt competitive with me. Instead of the mentoring that I would expect to receive from a manager, I felt that she took her insecurities out on me and deliberatively undermined me from doing my job.”

As we celebrate International Women’s Day in 2019, a point in time where we’ve made significant inroads to gender equality in the workplace, it’s also a time to identify areas for continued progress. In that spirit, I feel that I need to bring attention to an issue that is rarely discussed.

The topic is sex discrimination against women, by women.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not wish to perpetuate the bias that women can’t get along and are out to tear each other down. However, I’ve been coming across several examples of this and wanted to shed light on the topic and start a dialogue.

I credit my friend with the quote above; let’s call her Sarah for anonymity’s sake. After having spent nearly two years being obstructed and diminished by her female manager, Sarah filed a legal case against her employer for sex discrimination. She won. 

More recently, another friend of mine, let’s call her Emma, also sought legal action against her employer. She joined her company as a senior risk manager, only to find herself relegated to a more junior position once she began reporting to a new female manager.

“She never listened to any of my views, yet she respected the men in our team. I think she wanted me to just sit there and execute, rather than go out and speak to senior stakeholders, who were also her stakeholders.

“She gave me menial, low level tasks like taking minutes and not respecting me. When I brought this issue up with her, she filed a complaint with HR and they immediately put me on notice, undermining the whole point of ‘speaking up’.”

Emma’s lawyers suggested that the best case she could file for was the misinterpretation of role, however, after discussions with her lawyers, she decided not to take action in order to balance the fact that she would be in the industry for at least another 30 years. Protecting her own reputation became of utmost importance. She resigned instead, and immediately found a more suitable role elsewhere.

It concerns me how many cases like these go unreported as a result of the fear of reputational damage, otherwise known as a ‘career limiting move’.

I also wonder how many go unreported as a result of women not tuning into the underlying motives. “My experience with my manager completely disempowered me however I did not lose my self-confidence. I was able to identify that she was feeling insecure about my abilities. I believe some women who may find themselves in my situation could experience feelings of self-doubt and blame themselves before realising the bigger psychological issues at play,” said Emma.

A sad state of affairs

These stories are just two examples of many that I’ve become aware of. They usually involve a highly talented, ambitious young female and their female manager. I’ve heard one person go so far as to say, “I don’t care who my boss is, so long as they are not female.”

Personally, I have been fortunate to only have had supportive female managers who have been active sponsors of my career. Having a good relationship with a female manager can be a life-changing experience for a woman. Not only does she become a strong role model, she can also empathise and discuss the unique challenges you face as a woman. Nothing is more inspiring than to have a strong female manager to look up to and have in your court.

But when things go awry, it is detrimental to the employee, as well as the organisation’s broader agenda for workplace gender equality and their reputation as an employer. “Female bosses who feel insecure about other female team members impact heavily on the experience one feels about the organisation and its culture. It really gives the organisation a bad name. I would never recommend any of my female, or male friends for that matter, to work there,” says Emma.

The far-reaching consequences of a male-dominated business world

In exploring this issue, I’ve noticed that it’s more pronounced in male-dominated industries such as oil and gas, engineering, and logistics.

This was certainly the case for Sarah. “As a late 40-something woman who made it clear when she  joined the company that she didn’t have children and didn’t intend to, it was obvious that [my manager] had aggressively pursued her career in a highly male-dominated industry.”

In historically less inclusive workplaces, women had to behave in certain ways in order to conform and succeed, possibly experiencing hostility towards them and having to make significant compromises along the way, such as choosing their career over family or relationships. Succeeding in such circumstances may leave the individual feeling triumphant, but possibly bitter.

“Unfortunately, we do see women who have succeeded in these environments bring other women down. I refer to this as ‘kneecapping’,” says Penny Locaso, entrepreneur and ‘happiness hacker’, who previously spent 16 years as an executive in change management in one of the world’s largest resources companies.

Today, as the world of work becomes more inclusive and gender equality becomes an imperative in organisations, seeing younger women having it ‘easier’ may trigger bitter feelings and antagonistic behaviours, even though all they wanted was to have equal opportunity for women in the first place.

“One perspective is that these women come from a place of deep hurt. They may have been treated badly in the past themselves and this has created deep-seated feelings of resentment that could manifest in their treatment of others who are rising up the ranks,” says Dr. Jess Murphy, Mercer Australia’s strategic alliance partner, who is paving the way for inclusive leadership and workplace culture.

“Another perspective is that the actions of these women, as leaders, are being filtered through a lens different to their male counterparts. It may be unconscious or even conscious bias at play where women leaders who are less empathetic and warm are judged more harshly than their male peers. Particularly women leaders who demonstrate assertive, authorative and confident qualities,” Jess continued.

This bias that Jess describes is called confirmation bias, and it is a significant issue that many great female leaders face. It is important, however, to draw the distinction between bias and sex discrimination, the latter of which entails deliberate acts to exclude and prevent, women from doing their jobs and progressing in their careers. 

What, then, could be the solution to the problem?

Whilst gender diversity is an imperative for employers, this kind of behaviour is enabled by company culture. It is therefore critical for employers to  create a culture of inclusion at all levels if they want to become a true equal opportunity employer.

For women in the workplace, be aware that sex discrimination can also come from women and under no circumstances should it be tolerated any more than other forms of discrimination. If you believe this is happening to you, speak out.

“Sisters are doing it for themselves…”

I acknowledge that this article is controversial. However, the point is not to attack women. I am calling out an issue that is real and being reported by emerging female talent, and therefore needs to be discussed and addressed.

I am encouraged to see the rise of movements such as “Shine Theory” and “Celebrating Women”, both of which rally and celebrate women’s camaraderie and mutual admiration. These are just some of the many ways women are rallying together to support each other.

In fact, a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that high-performing women have one thing in common. They have a tight-knit circle of other women who come together to discuss challenging matters relating to work culture, hostility towards women, and gender diversity. The study found that women who had this had a job placement level 2.5 times higher than women with a male-dominated inner circle.

We must support one another. Not only is it the right thing to do by other women, it is the right thing to do for our organisations, our society, but also ourselves.

Georgina Lee
by Georgina Lee

Head of Innovation, Growth and Experience — Career, Pacific