Women: Are We Our Own Worst Enemy?

cheryl benton headshotHere’s some serious food for thought in the age of women’s advancement by Cheryl Benton, founder/publisher of The Three Tomatoes, and one of our strategic partners. She raises an issue about the experience had by many women in the workplace which often gets ignored. With so many fantastic, ethically-minded ladies in our circles, it’s no wonder that we often lose sight of the fact that successful women can have a tendency to work against one another. You’ll see what I mean after reading Cheryl’s intriguing article, which happens to be worth checking out for her engaging style alone! Enjoy. -Deborah  

Two things came across my desk recently that brought to mind the quote “we’ve seen the enemy and they are us”. The first was a survey that 1,000 professional women took at Citi’s Connect: Professional Women’s Network on LinkedIn asking if they prefer to work for a male or female boss.  The result? They’d preferred a male boss, 4 to 1. And then I read a very thought-provoking essay by Peggy Drexler in the Wall Street Journal called “The Tyranny of the Queen Bee”, which presents a very compelling case that women in power are not helping other women.  She cites a 2007 survey that found 45% of workers have been bullied in the office, and 40% of the bullies were women.  And another study reported that female bullies direct their hostilities towards other women 80% of the time.  But wait, there’s more.  A 2011 survey by the American Management Association found that 95% of women believe they were undermined by another woman at some point in their careers.  Not a pretty picture here, which got me to thinking about my own career and how I measure up too.

The term “Queen Bee” was coined in the 1970s and early on in my career I encountered one.  I was working for a technology company that was dominated by men with the exception of one woman who was one of the firm’s top sales people and a district manager.  Her name was Alexandra and she was a beautiful, tall, imposing redhead and I was in awe of her. She took absolutely no notice of me whatsoever, until I was named a “manager” in the marketing group, one of a small handful of younger women who were being promoted in the company.  Well I finally got her attention, but not in a good way.  She went out of her way at any group meeting she and I were in, to discredit me in some way.  I felt intimidated and terrified.  But one day anger took over.  I had enough, and I walked into her office, past her secretary, pounded my fist on her desk, and told her if she had a problem with me she could discuss it to my face and not try to humiliate me in front of a group! She was stunned.  No one, not even the guys, had ever dared challenge her. Well, we never became friends and she never helped me, but that was the end of the bullying.

As I proceeded upwards in my career in advertising and marketing, there were many other women climbing up the ladder in their respective careers in other firms.  But there were very few who had reached the top. So really, all my mentors were men.  But I did notice early on that men knew how to network.  They had their circles from college and former jobs, and they stayed connected to their circles. They didn’t hesitate to reach out for advice, help or referrals.  This was not something that women were doing, or even really thinking about doing to help each other. And even as many of us made our way into positions of power – I’m being honest here – we still weren’t helping each other out.

Madeline AlbrightIn recent years though, I have felt that it’s started to change. Through The Three Tomatoes and my involvement with a few women’s organizations, I have experienced for the first time the power of women collaborating, sharing and working towards accomplishing something together.  And it’s been a wonderful and powerful thing. So where’s the disconnect? Is working on a common goal together outside of the office different than working in a competitive environment and feeling threatened that a younger, smarter version of us might just usurp us?  I hope not.  I’m reminded of Madeline Albright’s quote, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

I’d love to know your thoughts.  “Do women help or hinder each other in the workplace?”

Cheryl Benton is founder/publisher of The Three Tomatoes (www.thethreetomatoes.com), a lifestyle newsletter and website for “women who aren’t kids.” She founded the website after a successful 30 year career in the NYC ad agency business because she felt marketers were ignoring an entire group of smart, savvy, accomplished women who just happened to be over the age of 40.