Women Helping Women in the Workplace—or Not?

Research examines whether some women pull up ladder after breaking glass ceiling

Posted Apr 07, 2014

by Alecia M. Santuzzi, Ph.D., Sarah Bailey, Jasmin Martinez and Giulia Zanini, guest contributors

When reflecting on the future of women’s equality, activist Germaine Greer stated that her worry was the potential damage of "women's own misogyny" against each other. Recent psychological research supports Greer’s concern.

Women’s representation in the U.S. workforce has increased tremendously, which ought to give other women confidence that they can break through the glass ceiling that prevented leadership opportunities and career success in previous generations.

As women advance to new opportunities, it is often expected that they will be supportive of other women. This support could include helping their female co-workers learn about the organization, providing friendship, or facilitating new career opportunities. Employers might assume that female employees will support each other, leading them to pair new female employees with female mentors.

Indeed, a long-standing phenomenon in social psychology suggests “in-group favoritism” occurs such that people will show favoritism to members of their own social groups (Brewer, 1979, 2007). For a category such as gender, women should be evaluating other women more positively than they evaluate men. Similarly, women may expect to be treated positively by other women due to their higher levels of trust in their in-group members (other women) as compared to men.

However, some studies have shown evidence contrary to these expectations such that in-group members do not show favoritism toward similar others. There are even instances where people actually show a bias against their in-group members.

One reason that women might not support each other is to avoid a marginalized status in the workplace. Not providing support to other women might be a way to distance themselves from women as a marginalized group (Jackson et al., 1996). Rather than helping other women succeed, women might distance themselves from their female co-workers to avoid stigma and negative stereotypes.

More recently, research has shown that women may not support each other’s progress specifically in situations where they are outnumbered by men. Ryan et al. (2012) found evidence that female supervisors were less supportive of female employees in male-dominated organizations.

Additionally, research has identified a “queen bee” effect among policewomen, where women achieve career success by distancing themselves from other women. When policewomen were asked to think about the possibility of sexism, those who did not consider their gender to be especially important to them distanced themselves even more from other women and denied experiencing gender discrimination (Derks et al., 2011).

Why would women in male-dominated work environments show less rather than more support for fellow female co-workers? One explanation might be that when women are underrepresented in the workforce, they see fewer opportunities for individual advancement. This prompts the need to act in individualistic ways and to evaluate other women more negatively to eliminate threats to their career opportunities (Ryan et al., 2012).

The irony is that women may enter male-dominated work environments expecting to receive positive evaluations from other women. Rather than the expected in-group favoritism, the above research suggests that women's experiences in the workforce can be more aptly described as in-group competition. This suggests that in male-dominated work environments, the few women who break through the glass ceiling might be inclined to “pull up the ladder behind them.”

Negative evaluations among women not only have work-related consequences, but also might prompt feelings of betrayal due to an incorrect assumption of trust in other women. This effect is all the more severe if women are more likely to seek support from other women in work environments with an existing gender disparity—the conditions that unfortunately are likely to lead to less support being provided by other women.

My team of researchers at Northern Illinois University is currently conducting research exploring women's evaluations of other women, women’s expected level of support from other women, and factors that lead women to distance themselves from other women in male-dominated work environments. We hope to uncover the reasons why women might withhold support from each other and identify ways that organizations might encourage better relationships and retention of women in the workplace.

Dr. Alecia Santuzzi is an assistant professor in social-organizational psychology at Northern Illinois University. Her research examines interpersonal perceptions in social and work situations. Her recent work focuses on how women and people with disabilities manage their social identities in the workplace. Members of Santuzzi's research team include NIU graduate students Sarah F. Bailey and Jasmin Martinez, as well as undergraduate Giulia Zanini.


Brewer, M. B. (1979). In-group bias in the minimal intergroup situation: A cognitive-motivational analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 86, 307-324. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.86.2.307

Brewer, M. B. (2007). The importance of being we: Human nature and intergroup relations. American Psychologist, 62, 728–738.

Derks, B., Van Laar, C., Ellemers, N., & de Groot, K. (2011). Gender-bias primes elicit queen bee responses among senior policewomen. Psychological Science, 22(10), 1243–1249. doi:10.1177/0956797611417258

Jackson, L. A., Sullivan, L. A., Harnish, R. J., & Hodge, C. N. (1996). Achieving positive social identity: Social mobility, social creativity, and permeability of group boundaries. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 241-254.

Ryan, K. M., King, E. B., Adis, C., Gulick, L. M. V., Peddie, C., & Hargraves, R. (2012). Exploring the asymmetrical effects of gender tokenism on supervisor-subordinate relationships. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42, 56–102. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2012.01025.x