Don’t Underestimate the Power of Women Supporting Each Other at Work

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Anne Welsh McNulty for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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Don’t underestimate the power of women connecting and supporting each other at work. As my experiences from being a rookie accountant to a managing director at an investment bank have taught me, conversations between women have massive benefits for the individual and the organization. When I graduated college in the 1970s, I believed that women would quickly achieve parity at all levels of professional life now that we had “arrived” — I viewed the lack of women at the top as more of a “pipeline” problem, not a cultural one. But the support I expected to find from female colleagues — the feeling of sisterhood in this mission — rarely survived first contact within the workplace.

When I was a first-year accountant at a Big Eight firm (now the Big Four), I kept asking the only woman senior to me to go to lunch, until finally she told me, “Look, there’s only room for one female partner here. You and I are not going to be friends.” Unfortunately, she was acting rationally. Senior-level women who champion younger women even today are more likely to get negative performance reviews, according to a 2016 study in The Academy of Management Journal.

My brusque colleague’s behavior has a (misogynistic) academic name: the “Queen Bee” phenomenon. Some senior-level women distance themselves from junior women, perhaps to be more accepted by their male peers. As a study published in The Leadership Quarterly concludes, this is a response to inequality at the top, not the cause. Trying to separate oneself from a marginalized group is, sadly, a strategy that’s frequently employed. It’s easy to believe that there’s limited space for people who look like you at the top when you can see it with your own eyes.

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By contrast, men are 46% more likely to have a higher-ranking advocate in the office, according to economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett. This makes an increasing difference in representation as you go up the org chart. According to a 2016 McKinsey report, Women in the Workplace, white men make up 36% of entry-level corporate jobs, and white women make up 31%. But at the very first rung above that, those numbers change to 47% for white men and 26% for white women — a 16% drop. For women of color, the drop from 17% to 11% is a plunge of 35%. People tend to think that whatever conditions exist now are “normal.” Maybe this (charitably) explains men’s blind spots: at companies where only one in ten senior leaders are women, says McKinsey, nearly 50% of men felt women were “well represented” in leadership.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

 

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