The media loves a fresh angle that undermines women's hard earned success. The New York Times Business section (1/11/09) ran an article, "A Sisterhood Of Workplace Infighting" by Peggy Klaus. Ms. Klaus, a leadership consultant, writes about how women mistreat women in the workplace:
"...limiting access to important meetings, withholding information, assignments, promotions; or blocking the way to mentors and higher ups."
Then The New York Times ran another similar article, "Backlash: Women Bullying Women" (5/10/09) on Mother's Day no less, with more anecdotal evidence that women are their own worst enemy. Both articles fall prey to the seduction of pop-psychology rhetoric portraying women as overemotional, backstabbing and bitchy. How many times do we hear similar stories that point accusatory fingers at women, deflecting attention from the true problems -- unequal pay, entrenched promotional practices that block women from the highest echelons in the political and corporate arenas, feeble sick leave and maternity leave policies, a lack of childcare subsidies for working mothers, and last but not least, the media's biased coverage? This backlash phenomenon is well documented in Susan Faludi's brilliant book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.
The article quotes Michelle Cirocco, the director of sales operations for Televerde, a marketing company. "The time has come for us to really deal with this relationship that women have to women, because it truly is preventing us from being as successful in the workplace as we want to be and should be."
Hidden behind this mask of concern is a brilliant, if dangerous message: women are their own obstacle. If women are to be blamed for their lack of progress, the load of responsibility shifts from the people who truly hold the power to change workplace policies and foster more positive images of ambitious women like you and me, the millions of women working hard to earn a living and move fairly through the ranks to assume increasingly challenging and responsible jobs. What's galling is that both articles completely ignore facts and present only sparse anecdotal evidence that transforms women from collaborative and powerful to conniving and power hungry.
In my 25 years as a leadership consultant, the vast majority of successful business women point to a female mentor or network that helped her break through the myriad obstacles and get ahead. Sally Helgeson, author of The Female Advantage, conducted comprehensive research demonstrating that women managers, in contrast to men, spend more time helping people and their authority comes from connection to people rather than distance from those below. Dee Dee Myers, in her book Why Women Should Rule the World, writes about how women give away credit to their detriment because they place such a high value on teamwork and building relationships. Carol Evans, CEO of Working Mother Media has built a thriving conference business that fosters women networking and mentoring other women.
We've come a long way baby but we still have a way to go before our country's "truths" about women tell the real story.
(updated with reference to Susan Faludi)
Jamie Woolf, veteran leadership consultant, is the author of Mom-in-Chief: How Wisdom From the Workplace Can Save Your Family From Chaos; www.mominchief.com