Make Your Voice Heard
Mean Girls at Work: Why Women Need to Help Other Women
Queen bees don't die off in high school. Workplace bullying still happens, but there are concrete ways to stop it
While I was truly blessed to have two nurturing women bosses early in my career on Capitol Hill, as I grew older and started to climb the ladder, I began encountering a lot of mean women at work. It’s hard enough for women just to advance, so I always wondered why they are so mean to each other when they actually do get to positions of responsibility.
In fact, a recent survey found that over two-thirds of women feel they’ve been bullied at work by female colleagues. It’s known as “Queen Bee Syndrome,” and it is a result of women treating other women in a “demoralizing, undermining or bullying” manner. And another study revealed that workplace bullying is four times more common than sexual harassment and racial discrimination. So why are women bullying other women?
Part of it I think goes to scarcity. Women have been competing for scarce resources — food for their offspring, men returning home from war, entry-level jobs, and now management positions — for decades. If we are honest, from historical times to modern days, the survival of the fittest female DNA hasn’t evolved much. Women often view other accomplished women as a threat versus a potential ally, especially at work.
Take the coveted leadership positions in corporations. Only 25 percent of those positions are held by women. You can see how ambitious women trying to get to the top might view another woman as more of a competitor than a man. I have interviewed for jobs where company insiders tell me that the woman interviewing me is never going to hire me because she’s afraid I may take her job one day.
And that brings me to my next point.
Women tend to feel threatened by other women — especially younger attractive women — in the workplace. I remember being hired for a prominent job after a brief interview with the man at the top of the organization. He told everyone (including my new female boss) that I was a “superstar.” The result: from the very first day, she tortured me until I finally quit a few years later.
I think one reason this bullying is so rampant in my generation is that women expect other women to pay their dues and run the same gauntlet of challenges they did. Mean women in the law firms I grew up in really had to claw their way to the top — to become the first break-the-glass-ceiling partners.
They had to work late hours, defer marriage and children, and basically have “no life.” And those weren’t just the prerequisites to make partner — it was the only way to keep your job.
Instead of relishing the fact that nowadays we have a corporate culture that finally values work-life balance — with companies offering yoga and therapy — these pioneer women expect their younger counterparts to suffer the same crap they went through as young professionals. “Success” seems to still equate to “sacrifice” for them. Yet today’s zeitgeist instructs us to “set boundaries” and “just say no” to living at work. And that leaves us all confused.
Regardless of the profession you’ve chosen, a lot of jobs today involve sales and the concomitant pressure to “bring in business.” The female pioneers at the top who may be failing to bring in new clients dump that responsibility (with little support) on younger, less seasoned associates who may not have strong networks or any training on business development.
So, how can we all fix this? First, the pioneers should consider mentoring those below them. I mentored a lot of women when I was Staff Director of the US Senate Subcommittee on Education. They were younger and smarter than me, and most went to better schools. Today those women have the power, and they help me with my work as a health policy consultant.
More importantly, women should “sponsor” other women. Sponsorship is when senior people use their clout and power to advocate for the advancement of a junior person in a key role. The pioneer women need to do more than just share information; they need to take an active role in sponsoring women and helping them advance in their careers.
Women should help each other at work and collaborate more to achieve mutual goals. A wide breadth of perspectives will always outperform a single myopic one. Not only will you develop a better work product, but you will also cement some lasting friendships. Some of my closest friends today are the women I worked with in some pretty toxic environments to create winning pieces of legislation. We may not always see eye to eye or see each other all the time, but we keep in touch and help each other advance in our respective careers.
Even if you are not in a position to mentor or sponsor, one thing you can do is be kind to one another. In today’s uncertain times, a random act of kindness can go a long way. It can be something as simple as complimenting a colleague on her new haircut or going the extra mile advocating for a promotion for another woman. And even though we are now in a period of social distancing, you can still do something remotely to help another woman. Recently, a friend of mine nominated me for an award in community leadership. And she did it virtually. It was unexpected but incredibly kind.
When I was a staffer in the Senate, I was typically the quarterback — the one in charge of writing the legislation and advancing it into the end zone. However, as I moved into management, I had to change roles and become the coach. What I learned is that helping others is often more rewarding than helping yourself, and kindness is not only easy — it begets more kindness.
“Unexpected kindness is the most powerful, least costly, and most underrated agent of human change.” – Bob Kerrey
Kim Cayce of Luna Startup Labs provided additional reporting for this piece.