Catfight in the Boardroom

Do women hold other women back? Whether it's reality or perception, office pressures can make women uncooperative.

By Judith Sills Ph.D., published January 1, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Two women are comparing career trajectories, one complaining that she was stalled for two years, until she finagled a lateral move.

"What was the problem?"

"Woman boss."

From glass ceilings through mommy wars, with on-site day care and maternity leave, sexual harassment policies and the code of who-gets-the-coffee-now, we have been adjusting to two generations of women entering the workplace with every intention of camping out and moving up. Their impact on office culture, business ethics, productivity, pay structure, flex time, and, in particular, the men who had to move over to make way for them, has been exhaustively documented. Now we are starting to talk about their effect on each other. It is a particularly testy topic.

A woman's worst workplace enemy? Another woman. Women, it is widely felt, hold other women back.

Is there validity to this perception? I haven't seen data to prove it's true, but the fact that it is a common survey finding is powerful in itself. Women blocking other women is a dangerous perception. It reinforces some inchoate portrait of the woman executive as insecure bitch, easily threatened, overly emotional, less able to focus on achievement because she is preoccupied with squelching younger talent. In this scenario, female managers are all hard-edged Bette Davises, eye out for the rest of us incipient Eve Harringtons, turning the workplace for women into one hell of a bumpy ride.

To the extent the belief is justified, women unfairly competing with women is more than a perceptual problem. If you are in fact victimized, by a man or a woman—say your boss promotes only men—you need to take appropriate action.

But real or felt, is female competition really discrimination? Might women simply be overreacting to the shock of competition—anticipated and therefore tolerated when it comes from a man—a source from whom we expected support? And why should we anticipate that quality support? Well, hey, we're women. Isn't being supportive what women do?

Take this knot of gender stereotypes, combine it with the fuel of ambition, set it in a corporate milieu where progress is a game of musical chairs, and you get an environment that, at the very least, strains the cooperative relationships between women. Consider just some of the forces pushing us hard against each other.

Anthropology. "Yo, Bernie. How's about bringing that bison over to my cave?" Since the beginning of social organization, female survival and the survival of their young depended on how well they could compete with other women for the resources that men could provide. Surely such competitive instincts are hard-wired. Why would they not surface clearly in the gladiatorial arena of the office?

Female Gender Expectations. Title IX and other opportunities are creating emotional openings for the development of healthy competitive instincts. Still, women train primarily for and highly value the cooperative skills so necessary to maintaining family and community. Open competition with each other is a direct violation of these social expectations. A man after the credit or the clout is, after all, only being a man. But a woman concerned with the same rewards is a backstabber.

Male Gender Expectations. Whereas women expect another woman to be "nice" and are fiercely critical when she's not, men often view young, inexperienced women as professionally "weak," and they can be hugely supportive as a result. He's a hero rescuing a damsel. Her female colleagues may see the power beneath her youth much earlier than their male counterparts and so have a wary eye. The result? Women report that male colleagues are more available as mentors—right up to the point when they achieve professional parity—but the belief that women are tougher on other women has been reinforced.

Limited Resources. Enormous progress has certainly been made, but leadership opportunities for women are still limited—though the limits are both unspoken and vehemently denied. (After all, they're illegal.) Women rising through the ranks nonetheless are acutely aware that they are competing mostly against each other for the smaller piece of real estate available to them. As such, realistic women eye each other as more of a direct threat—and act accordingly.

The Motherhood Dilemma. As mothers, women are, at this moment, built-in competitors. The unspoken issue that informs all the other female workplace relationships is a woman's mothering choice. We reassure ourselves that we've chosen right by seeing the choices of other women as wrong and bad.

Inside the office, single women begrudge the extra privileges of time and understanding claimed by those who are mothers. Mothers resent the selfish lack of empathy displayed by the childless. Turned against each other, women waste time undermining each other's progress.

Meanwhile, husbands and fathers cheerfully put in their time at the office, openly competing for promotion and plum assignments and then treating each other to lunch afterwards. They think about competition differently, and it works for them.

What is the office, after all, but another field on which to prove his merit, and how could that be satisfactorily established without some measure of contest?

There's something for women to learn here, some relaxation of expectations, some stiffening of the spirit, that might make the harsh realities of the office easier to stomach. Are women actually harder on other women in the workplace? The answer is probably a cautious yes, sometimes. But does that have to be a source of pain? Not necessarily. We could adopt the male workplace mantra that eases the relationships of the most competitive of colleagues: "It's just business." And they believe it.

United Women Stand

Keeping your friends close and your enemies closer is a truism. Better to forge strong bonds than be picked off one by one.

  • Ignore Reputations. Strong women are targets for exaggerated tales of aggression and mean spiritedness. Believe only what you experience.
  • Meet as a Group. Create occasions for all women at the office to meet together. Academy Award night? Baby shower luncheon? Ignore males who denigrate your participation. A strong group identity can boost cooperation and the forging of mutual interests. Remember Lysistrata?
  • Acknowledge Competition. Friendly rivalries thrive when you openly label them as such and look comfortable in the process. Take a rival to lunch; joke about your both trying to win over the boss. It is, after all, no secret.
  • Recognize When You Pose a Threat. If you see it, you can soothe it. And that might make the relationship better.
  • Don't Take It Personally. Just because another woman wants the project or promotion you aspire to doesn't mean she's out to get you. She's out to get ahead. Just like you. May the best woman win.