Women Need to Support Women at Work

Gender stereotypes already make it hard enough for women in the workplace but in tough times how women treat other women matters even more.
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Gender stereotypes already make it hard enough for women in the workplace but in tough times how women treat other women matters even more.

Today women make up 50% of managers in companies, but only 15% of executive officers. It's still rare to find women in any executive positions except media, marketing and HR and it's almost unheard of in technology. There was a period with no women CEOs in the top 150 technology companies before Carol Bartz took over Yahoo - and this for an industry that sells to as many women as men now.

Women in senior management are rare at most companies. Their behavior as leaders is scrutinized and it often feels like a no win - we are either too aggressive (feedback I've had) or too timid - held to standards most men are simply not held to. I know that's not going to change any time soon so as leaders we have suck it up, be ourselves, lead and find and empower other leaders in the organization.

But how women behave towards each other often reflects whether they think other women around them help or hurt their chances for advancement. the New York Times recently wrote about women bullying other women at work - reporting that 40% of bullies in the workplace are women -- with all the examples being women bullying other women.

This behavior does not make sense. What other minority would do that to each other? The question is -- do you believe being in the minority as a woman is an advantage or a disadvantage?

I've seen the best, and the worst, watching women in engineering companies where they are very much in the minority:

- Women who think that more women in the workplace would be a good thing tend to support other women. They'll actively coach, form support and mentoring groups and recommend other women for projects and advancement. This happens when they themselves are not threatened by female competition.

- Women who like being special in a group, being the exception, will consciously, or unconsciously sabotage other women because they don't want to share attention. They like being different and see other women as competition -- professionally or socially.

If you are experiencing sabotage or bullying from other women you can change the culture of the group you are in. One way to do this is to get the women in your organization together to acknowledge that you are a group, you are within the same culture, dealing with same stereotype and subtle discrimination issues. You can bring in a speaker to name the elephant in the room and catalyze the discussion -- bring in a dynamic speaker from the outside or a senior woman from your organization. Talk about how much effective the workplace is, and everyone's opportunity is, if you help each other develop your careers. Getting the discussion out in the open will raise awareness and a sense of responsibility in most people to help each other -- I've seen it work.

Women are also rare in the corporate board room -- less than 16% of Fortune 500 board members are women. I sit on two public boards and yes, I am the only woman on the board in both cases. When it comes to the substance of the job this is irrelevant -- but when I was invited to a working group of women who sit on public boards I was delighted to meet 25 other women who, like me, are in the minority. We discuss substantive issues about being on public company boards and the changing corporate governance challenges; we don't talk about being women, but even so it is encouraging to look across the room and see so many smart, powerful women navigating the same choppy waters.

Clearly I am not advocating unfairly advancing someone based on gender -- promotions need to be earned on merit no matter what. But I am advocating paying attention to how you can help other women in your organization thrive -- and putting a stop to sabotage.

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