In the era of the Women’s March and #MeToo, we are used to seeing women working together to bring about societal change. At the same time, when we talk about women’s relationships in the workplace, stories of infighting and flat-out mean female bosses seem to pervade popular culture. Does the concept of sisterhood—women lifting other women up—exist in the workplace?
Dispelling myths about women at work
Generalizations about women in the workplace, and particularly those in leadership positions, can be hard to shake. One commonly held belief is that women do not want to see other women (especially younger women) succeed:
- The anecdotes of women in leadership who are antagonistic toward other women, sometimes called the “Queen Bee” phenomenon, bring to mind high school pecking orders and popularity contests. But that’s oversimplifying the issue. If we look at it in the context of a minority group making inroads at the top, it’s unfortunately common to distance yourself from others in your group and align yourself with the majority.
- Assertive women are oftentimes perceived as going against gender norms, even in the eyes of other women. As a result, a confident female leader might be seen as aggressive or uncaring by the women who work for her, being held up to different standards than a male leader.
- Sometimes we’re surprised when a woman turns out to be a “bad boss”—because we often, unknowingly hold them to different standards, perhaps expecting them to be more naturally nurturing or maternal. That’s why we tend to remember those negative instances more vividly than the great female bosses we may have encountered.
Countering gender bias
So what can be done to build a stronger sense of sisterhood in the office? Rather than blaming a few women in leadership positions for being unsupportive, it’s more useful to look at ways that we can work together to counter the gender bias in organizational culture.
- Don't think gender equality is an issue in the social-impact space? While women make up nearly 75% of the nonprofit workplace, less than 50% of CEOs at nonprofits are women.
- Disparity, when it comes to pay and opportunities, is further amplified for women of color. Recognizing this distinction is important in order for any women’s empowerment group to be truly inclusive.
- Creating your own network of professional women and reaching out to female leaders in your organization, is a great place to start. From informal lunch meetings to affinity groups, a community of women can be a powerful source of insight and career advice.
- If you’re a senior leader, it’s important to use your position to address gender bias in hiring and promotion decisions. This could involve taking the initiative to identify well-qualified women if you see them being passed over.
What happens when women support each other?
In spite of negative stereotypes and gender bias in organizational cultures, the good news is that women really can lift each other up in their professional lives.
- Women’s leadership success can be predicted by their networks: having an inner circle of strong women has been found to correlate with greater success, according to a study of job placements directly from graduate school.
- When women have the support of other women, they are more likely to speak up about instances of discrimination or inequity. Working collectively, it’s easier to advocate for change within the organization.
- The organization as a whole benefits—a supportive culture that recognizes and fosters all talent will better retain and attract staff.
Do you belong to a supportive professional network of women? Tell us about it!
Lakshmi Hutchinson is a freelance writer with experience in the nonprofit, education, and HR fields. She is particularly interested in issues of educational and workplace equity, and in empowering women to reach their professional goals. She lives in Glendale, California with her husband, twin girls, and tuxedo cat.