Women Working with Women: Support and Sabotage

06/15/2015 03:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

It's 2015. Yet women still represent only a small percentage of senior management in U.S. business. What an opportunity! Diversity, including gender diversity, has resoundingly been linked with better financial results. So having more women in senior management should be an important goal of business leaders.

What is standing in the way of reaching that goal? Women's can't get off the hook. We have to ask what women have to do with the slow progress of women. I'm not talking about how women individually behave -- the focus of Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In. (Yes, it will probably help if women do more speaking up, asking for what they want, tooting their own horns and increasing their tolerance for risk.) I'm talking about how women treat and support each other.

In my workshops, I have been asked, "Why are women not more supportive of other women?" Or I'm told about a woman who undermined another woman or about a bad woman boss. And I hear stories of women who made it to the top and then "pulled the ladder up." Among the worst phrases I hear are "cattiness," "back-biting," and sabotage."

How true are the negative things? The phenomenon of women not supporting (or sabotaging) other women is clearly overblown. Minorities often get "painted with the same brush." The bad acts of one member of the group can be generalized to the entire group. If someone has had a bad male boss, he or she would never say, "Men are bad bosses." But we observe a woman undermining another woman and conclude that "women do that." Also, because there are few women at the upper levels of business, there is inordinate attention given to their behavior.

The negative is overblown, but there is room for improvement. Women are less likely than men to want a woman boss. Women bullies (40 percent of all workplace bullies) are reported to bully other women 70-80 percent of the time. One research study suggests that, with very few women at the executive level, they are compared to one another, creating competition. Women in leadership may want to avoid being seen as favoring women -- and so overcompensate.

If we want improvement (more women supporting other women or supporting them more), it is helpful to understand what factors, including unconscious mind-sets (ways of thinking), underlie negative behaviors.

One factor is the finite quality of time. Women still bear more responsibility for children and household -- or want to get home for family time. For many women there seems to be no time to socialize or mentor. The combination of the lower number of women in leadership positions and the time pressures on women at upper levels means a scarcity of women mentors available for high-potential women. Only if senior women see the value of leaving a legacy and supporting gender diversity will they set aside time to be known by and to mentor more junior women.

Another factor is the way the typical woman handles conflict. It can make tension between women worse. Women tend to avoid conflict or handle disagreements indirectly. They often take conflict personally and may hold onto a "grudge" for a long time. So when there is a disagreement between two women, bad feelings can linger rather than getting resolved. Women need to understand this tendency and try to take things less personally at work -- and find healthy ways to handle conflict.

"Mind-sets" are ways we are wired or learned to think. Often our mind-sets are unconscious. One unconscious mind-set that influences workplace dynamics has to do with expectations of women about relationships. Women are wired for close friendship in which two people are equals and share intimate secrets. Businesses tend to be hierarchical, and workplace relationships are what Pat Heim calls "friendly." Managers demonstrate "executive distance" in their relationships with subordinates. This kind of relationship between a "lower level" and "higher level" woman can disappoint (perhaps unconscious) expectations for close relationships. A woman may feel rejected by the senior woman. She may take it personally and dislike the senior woman.

Women absorb the same unconscious mind-sets from our culture that men do. Leadership has historically been defined in gendered terms, using masculine attributes (e.g., confidence, decisiveness and assertiveness), not feminine traits (e.g., collaboration, inclusiveness and nurturing). Extremely feminine women are called unflattering terms like "bimbo." Business women don't want to be identified with these stereotypes. They may disassociate from all that is feminine, becoming "honorary men" or "Queen Bees" -- happy to be the only woman at the top.

Women may not like women who make it to the top. While success and likeability are positively correlated for men, they are negatively correlated for women. Women, like men, trap women in the double bind -- not seeing women who exhibit feminine styles as leaders and yet calling women who operate in masculine styles that "B-word."

Given the number of women in the upper ranks of business, it is natural to think of women landing a leadership spot as a zero sum game; if another woman gets a spot, that's one less spot for me! A recent study showed the existence of "implicit quotas" -- not the kind requiring more women, but one limiting the number of women at the top! Having one woman in a senior position makes it less, not more, likely that there will be a second woman promoted! (This was not caused by the "Queen Bee" syndrome.) Awareness of this makes it hard to celebrate the promotion of a woman and see it as a gain for women generally!

Do women sabotage or support other women at work? Yes! Many women are very supportive of other women. Some simply do nothing to support other women's success. A few actively undermine other women. Many women are supportive most of the time but occasionally slip into negative territory. Awareness of the factors and mind-sets that underlie the negative behaviors can enable us to catch ourselves -- and to choose more supportive behaviors. Women can contribute to having more women at the top. That's good for women and good for the bottom line!