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Everyone's a Little Bit Sexist: Why Women Lock the Door to the Glass Ceiling Behind Them

Acknowledging both our behavior towards other women and our experiences at the hands of women is a crucial step towards change. Experiences of betrayal by one of our own can feel like death by a thousand paper cuts.
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Time and again, when speaking about equality at work, women stop to ask me why women are so unsupportive of other women. Easy: sexism is in no way limited to men. When discussing equal pay and gender inclusion, many people assume that sexist acts are done by men to women in a conscious manner.

No. The truth is that we all have implicit bias as to how we believe men and women should behave at work. Women, too, sustain and maintain sexism thereby perpetuating the status quo. Here's how:

It Starts Earlier Than You Realize

76% of elementary school teachers are women, and the classroom is Ground Zero for the socialization of our children. Teachers hold girls to a stricter standard of politeness, engaging boys eight times more often than girls when they speak out of turn. Parents also maintain this stricter standard of behavior for their daughters, reprimanding them twice as often as their sons. Prior to watching videos of classroom interactions, educators stated that the girls spoke out of turn more often. Yet, it was boys who spoke more in the classroom by a ratio of three to one. While the bias was clear, the teachers were not only oblivious to it, but believed the opposite was happening.

The myth that women speak more than men has been proven false. What remains clear is that these early and subconscious messages of inequality undermine the confidence of young girls. As girls reach adolescence, they no longer demonstrate vocal assertiveness, contributing to conversations only when they are absolutely certain of their comments.

Sounds like any team meetings you've witnessed recently?

These subconscious ideals of politeness and perfectionism undermine women when they leave school for the workforce. Reprimanding and silencing young girls in school disempowers them, creating a standard of subservience, while boys are allowed to exercise dominance. Studies show that confidence on the job is as impactful as competence. Yet, because women have been silenced from an early age, they lack confidence - the very confidence that would highlight their competence. And during the critical and formative years in which core beliefs are formed, this disempowerment is predominately conducted by other women.

Paranoid Much?

Few women reach the top. Even today, 50 years after women first entered the workforce in mass numbers, only 18% of law firm equity partners are female, less than 5% are CEOs, and a mere 25% of women are executives. Once a female joins the executive ranks, the chance of another woman being promoted decreases by 51%. This statistic seems counterintuitive. Wouldn't women be helping other talented and competent women break the glass ceiling? As it turns out, no.

After years of being outnumbered in competitive business environments, women who do reach the top are, not surprisingly, a little paranoid. A new study shows that women executives are less likely to hire another woman because they are afraid of being accused of bias and favoritism. Therefore, they go to the opposite extreme, neither helping nor hiring other women. Further studies suggest that high-performing female bosses may feel threatened by their low-performing female subordinates. Women leaders fear they will be evaluated negatively through association with the struggling employees, and therefore do not support those female employees, and even denigrate them.

The results: overkill. Studies have shown that low-performing women who switched from a male manager to a high-performing female manager had 30% lower salaries than low-performing men who made the same kind of switch. Like our elementary school teachers, female bosses continue to hold women employees to a more rigorous standard of behavior - a standard that often undermines the advancement of these women.


Evolutionary science offers an additional explanation as to why women don't help other women. With few women in leadership positions, it is easy for male colleagues to compare and contrast them like commodities at a farmer's market. Being compared and contrasted sparks competition to stand out, rather than an incentive to create a community to uplift.

Many women are not aware of the "compare and contract" work model, because it's a model that has been at play everywhere else in their lives. Being objectified in this manner is common for females, and creates a subconscious power dynamic, whether true or perceived. If men have the power to judge me, they have the power to influence my future so I better stay in their good graces.

The same thought system is at play when analyzing and tolerating micro-aggressions at work. Women of previous generations had no choice but to suffer the use of the word "broad," to be told to "relax" (hence insinuating she was overly emotional), and to join fellow male colleagues at strip clubs in order to be a team-player and privy to conversations in which deals were made. Women who have suffered such indignities have become desensitized to them, and therefore are more likely to tolerate them, siding with male colleagues when female subordinates complain. It's the bootstrap model: I tolerated it and nobody helped me, so why should I help you?

I'm Not Actually A Woman

Two types of female leaders can be identified: the Righteous Woman, who believes she has a moral obligation to assist and mentor other women, and the Queen Bee: the senior woman who undermines her junior, because she does not identify with being female.

The Queen Bee is the most compelling theory surrounding girl on girl crime, and encompasses the idea of masculine and feminine energy. As the feminist movement began, women were not wanted in the workplace. Sexual harassment was common, rampant, and excepted on the job. In order to protect themselves and succeed, females evolved to become more masculine, exhibiting characteristics such as competitiveness and assertiveness. Women were rewarded for winning, being competitive, and being aggressive. Therefore, they separated themselves from attributes deemed feminine: emotional intelligence, compromise, collaboration and creativity. But more than that, these women distanced themselves from their female colleagues, claiming to "think like a guy" or to demean their own sex as "too emotional."

If there are two standards of behavior, and one garners success, it is natural to want to be a part of the winning team. But we have evolved from the 1970s to understand the value of emotional intelligence, collaboration, and creativity on the job front, and while it is acceptable to be female and exhibit more masculine traits, it's counterproductive, not to mention factually incorrect, to dismiss 47% of the workforce as "too emotional."

What Do We Do?

Maybe here is where women do need to take a cue from men: men are more aware of sexism in the workplace than women. Awareness and education is the starting point for change. Understanding the subtle ways in which women have been socialized, as well as our own implicit bias is an excellent beginning.

Another important step would be to acknowledge the fact that women are different. Not worse, not better, but different. Not only are women socialized differently, but women have a different physical brain with a larger corpus callosum and more white matter, which rapidly connects thought and emotion, creating diffused awareness. This is what allows women to see the forest for the trees. And there is great value in our differences. Diverse teams increase forecasted corporate financial earning by 15% to 35%.

Acknowledging both our behavior towards other women and our experiences at the hands of women is a crucial step towards change. Experiences of betrayal by one of our own can feel like death by a thousand paper cuts. The wounds are subtle, yet painful, and the cumulative result is that we sometimes bleed out. Speaking our truth and acknowledging our shortcomings is a means towards healing, and doing it better next time.