Women Battle Each Other in Quest for Top Jobs

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Some female executives are preventing other qualified women from advancing into high-level positions at many U.S. corporations, a study from Washington University in St. Louis has found.

“My research aims to understand the complicated processes that contribute to the dearth of women in the top tiers of organizations,” Michelle Duguid, Ph.D., an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, said in a statement.

Published in May 2012, the study has identified three reasons why women in senior executive roles are hesitant to help female newcomers in their industry:

  • Competitive threat among women is the fear that a highly qualified female candidate might be more capable, competent or accepted.
  • Collective threats are seen in women who might be concerned about bringing in another female with lower qualifications who could reinforce negative stereotypes and affect others’ impressions of them.
  • Favoritism is evident when female leaders are concerned about appearing biased toward other women and will not advocate for them.

Female leaders and entrepreneurs are divided about the study’s findings. Some are discouraged by the lack of progress made by businesswomen in the corporate world since the 1980s, while others say that female colleagues are supporting each other at the highest levels and will continue to make the global workplace more female-friendly.

Beate Chelette, a Los Angeles-based entrepreneur, said women do not support one another in the workplace because they do not understand “successor planning.”

“Traditionally, women worry that the new girl is after their job. Their thinking dwells on how to protect their job instead of how to train someone to take their job so that they can move up to the next level,” Chelette explained via e-mail. “That is why so many women are stuck in manager positions for their entire lives and never get promoted.”

Caroline Turner, principal of DifferenceWorks LLC, a female-owned consulting firm in Denver and author of Difference Works: Improving Retention, Productivity and Profitability through Inclusion (Live Oak Book Co., 2012), disagrees. She says women are relational and are wired to share intimacies.

However, she explained that this female tendency is squashed in the modern workplace because of its hierarchical nature. Women are polite to one another in the office but keep an executive distance to maintain a professional façade.

The Washington University in St. Louis study “can make women pause, then ponder what they can do to change this trend,” she told SHRM Online.

Duguid said her research has strong implications for business leaders in the United States. “Organizational leaders really need to recognize these potential threats, as they could have a significant impact on the interaction between female group members, which could ultimately affect performance,” she said in a statement.

No Peer Pressure

Turner, along with Helanie Scott, a Dallas-based CEO of leadership training firms Align4Profit and CoachQuest, has devised several strategies for human resource professionals to combat this trend among female colleagues looking to advance in a corporation:

  • Instill women initiatives. Companies should start seminars that are geared toward women as well as establish study groups that offer networking opportunities.
  • Reward female leaders. Team performances, not just individual contributions, should be acknowledged in a more thoughtful way.
  • Create performance metrics. Showing tangible results about how well women coach and develop other women into leadership ranks will motivate more women to make the time to mentor.
  • Provide peer mentoring. Peer networks thrive when colleagues give one another honest feedback and are comfortable confiding in one another without judgment.

Turner explained that peer networks—where employees are placed in a circle—work the best because everyone is considered equal. “The circle is a natural form, and that allows for more intimacy between colleagues,” she added.

However, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of 20-first, a gender consulting firm based in Paris and author of How Women Mean Business: A Step by Step Guide to Profiting from Gender Balanced Business (Wiley, 2010), insisted that competitive behavior among women happens only in a corporate culture filled with insecurity. Therefore, it is a corporate culture issue rather than a gender problem, she said.

“HR must work with leaders and managers to make everyone feel comfortable, not just women,” Wittenberg-Cox told SHRM Online.

Global Girl Power

The Washington University in St. Louis study suggested that leaders should encourage females to identify with their demographic group, which can help them manage work relationships and develop alliances and mentoring relationships with other women.

“This may be crucial to an organization’s ability to realize the potential benefits of diversity,” Duguid said in a statement.

Suzanne Bates, CEO of Bates Communications in Boston, said she is implementing that vision at her consultancy, where she coaches leaders at many Fortune 500 companies, including Dow Chemical Co., Kimberly-Clark Corp., BNY Mellon Corp., The North Face Inc., and American Express Co.

“Women in senior roles are more focused than ever in reaching out across the organization to help their counterparts and also to mentor high-potential women leaders,” Bates said.

Another female leader who is taking Duguid’s words to heart is JJ DiGeronimo, director of global cloud solutions and enterprise markets at VMware Inc. in Cleveland. She has started several women’s groups in her computer software firm, including one called “Women of Purpose,” which is designed to make female colleagues—including interns—more comfortable in the high-tech industry.

“I do find a few generous women that go out of their way to support and mentor women,” DiGeronimo wrote via e-mail.

Meanwhile, Libby Wagner, an entrepreneur and poet based in Seattle, said that Philips Healthcare has initiated a program “WINergy” to support the growth, development and mentoring of women in leadership roles. This program, she explained, encourages women to network, share and seek out opportunities and encourage one another.

“If women don’t support other women, we won’t remove that glass ceiling,” Turner concluded.

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer in Toronto, Canada.  To read the original article, please click here.   To read the orti