Hostility between working women is trending. A study of one thousand professionals on leadership qualities found women consistently rate female colleagues lower than their male colleagues on workplace competencies. Women tend to judge men on their performance, but judge each other on appearance, life choices, and demeanor as well. Instead of standing in solidarity, we sabotage each other.
Workplace sabotage among women — unconsciously or consciously undermining another — may include using one’s position of power to damage another woman’s access to an opportunity, promotion, or being heard equitably. It may entail moments of cruelty with lasting effects. Too often, it’s explained away as something women just do — as if women were genetically inclined to be mean to each other. But that’s an outdated, incorrect and dangerous myth. Our tendency to sabotage ourselves and each other is rooted in a patriarchal workplace system that has socialized everyone into believing and acting that women are somehow less valuable.
But working women can change this negative narrative, stand in solidarity instead of in opposition, and lift each other up. It starts with taking these five actions:
Look at the stories we tell ourselves
We internalize and repeat the stories society tells us. When society tells women our value is based on body size or beauty, not brains, it sets up a vicious cycle, Not only do women feel unworthy, they consider other women unworthy as well. Consider the messages in The First Wives Club, The Devil Wears Prada, Mean Girls, Stepmom, or a Real Housewives show — that older crones compete with younger women, and all women compete for power and the attention of men. Once women recognize how damaging these stories are, we can stop absorbing them and reflecting them back at other women.
Undertake a collaborative effort
Consider one collaborative effort you could undertake with another person, and set it in motion. It might be planning a department social or serving on an ad hoc committee; it could be a personal or a professional endeavor. It doesn’t have to be with another woman — it could be with anyone you work with. What you’re seeking to understand is your and their perception of that effort, not just the effort itself. Consider how you are affected by your own socialization, and what collaboration and leadership means with this person.
Expose the wage gap
Women are still paid less than men, according to the National Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The wage gap was shrinking, but now it’s stalled — and at this rate it won’t equal out until 2059. Worse, women of color are paid drastically less than white women. Find out the wage gap in your workplace, and you can see to equalizing inequitable practices. Being able to inquire about salaries depends on your industry and workplace; many companies have adopted an unspoken rule against salary disclosure. But in others, salaries are accessible: institutions such as state universities make all employee salaries available to the public. Once you find out the salaries and discrepancies in your workplace, you can take action within your sphere of influence to change them.
Break down the maternal wall
The maternal wall is a pernicious bias based on antiquated stereotypes around motherhood. A manager may downshift on opportunities for a working mother regardless of her own wishes or situation; organizations make countless assumptions about what working mothers do with their time that undermine their career paths. Working women are often torn about whether and when to have children, when to return to work, and other issues; we wind up judging fellow working mothers as much as ourselves. Instead, we need to self-reflect on and share our own experiences, and create space for others to share as well. Find out the current policy at your workplace, and consider what needs to be improved. Push for equal time for both maternity and paternity leave, and work to come together with colleagues who are also affected.
Examine recruitment and retention practices
When you shed light on conditions by asking questions, you create space for change to happen. Look at the recruiting and retention practices in your workplace: are women and women of color applying for open positions? Are job descriptions worded to encourage diverse applicants? Where are they advertised? If your company uses an outside recruiting firm, is it committed to finding diverse candidates? What pre-assessments are used and do they hold the potential for bias? Regarding retention, who is applying to upper-level positions and professional development? If there are initiatives or support groups already in place, consider if they are simply aimed at bringing in more women or providing upward mobility opportunities, or also truly address women of color.
Feeling pitted against each other occurs in all kinds of workplaces — finance to enterprise, academia to manufacturing to media. It happens in all geographic regions, to all occupations, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and abilities. When forced to exist within a system that gives some people power and privilege but others nothing, women are unable to support each other. But we can transform our workplaces — by asking questions, standing in solidarity with one another, and helping other women thrive in collaborative ways. Workplaces need to do better, providing appropriate recruitment and professional development programs that effectively address sexist and racist practices. By naming our experiences, we create spaces for others to recognize they they’re not alone, and that their experience has a name. Then, we can start doing something about it.
By Joy L. Wiggins, PhD and Kami J. Anderson, PhD
Joy L. Wiggins, PhD, is the founder and executive director of Joy Wiggins, PhD, LLC, a consulting company that focuses on equity, inclusion, and social justice. She received her doctorate from the Ohio State University in multicultural education with a focus on social justice in children’s literature.
Kami J. Anderson, PhD, is the founder and executive director of Bilingual Brown Babies, a company that focuses on fostering bilingualism in black families. She received her doctorate from Howard University in intercultural communication and culture. She is the author of Language, Identity, and Choice. Their new book is From Sabotage to Support: A New Vision for Feminist Solidarity in the Workplace (BK Books, May 2019).