Women Behaving Badly

Women Behaving Badly

Get inside the mind of the office backstabber.

By Joanne Gordon

After working for years in women-dominated offices in the software industry, Julia Hutton had had enough. “I saw so many things that were extremely counterproductive,” says Hutton, referring to, for instance, female colleagues who spent more time talking about her “creative” clothing than her job performance. “The better I did, the more threatened others became, and the more petty they got.” One time she even quit. “Who wants to drive into the office every day knowing they will be beaten up emotionally?”

Hutton’s ultimate solution was a bit drastic: In 2002 she started her own virtual marketing outfit, Phoenix-based Orca Communications Unlimited LLC, which today employs 20 people, all of whom work from home. Because they do not work together in Orca’s main office, maintained for client meetings, there are fewer catty distractions. At least one staffer loves the setup. “I don’t feel like I have to compete on frivolous things, like who has lost weight or who wears what outfit,” says Jennifer Hoffman, an account executive whose previous jobs were rife with cliques of women who “felt free to talk trash about each other and be very cruel… just like the cafeteria in junior high.”

Turning workers into telecommuters, as if separating unruly kids, may not be the ideal resolution to such behavior. But does Hoffman have a point? Is schoolgirl conduct – from cattiness to bullying – still following too many women into the workplace? And is it hurting women’s overall advancement? As women redefine power in the 21st century, more women view such pettiness as old-fashioned and outdated. “The old model of the ‘powerful’ woman [was] the woman who… didn’t trust, or like, other women,” writes Candace Bushnell in her novel Lipstick Jungle (Hyperion, 2005).

So why do many women still insist that other women are out to get them? Critics roll their eyes and plead, “Stop whining and get over it!” Women who complain are too sensitive, they say. Besides, they add, catty women in the office are no worse than men who insult, undermine or refuse to support one another. But women have thinner ranks when it comes to the upper echelons of business, where they make up barely 2 percent of CEOs in the top 1,000 companies. That makes petty attacks among women much more damaging.

“The only way we are going to become a majority is together,” says Gail Evans, author of She Wins, You Win (Gotham Books, 2004). Men know this. “The boys move in packs,” Evans says. “If a guy gets a big promotion, you can be pretty sure his team is coming with him.” Evans, who also writes for PINK, preaches that while women in powerful positions should also help men succeed, they have a personal obligation to help women. So even if there may be a male “jerk” for every female “bitch,” until there is true equality in the executive suite, women simply can’t afford to behave poorly toward one another.

The Bad Apples

It’s true that many female executives do support other talented, hard-working women by mentoring them or, for example, by inviting them to high-level meetings. That said, there are bad apples. In 1996, Judith Briles, Ph.D., surveyed 5,000 women who said being undermined by a woman was the third-greatest problem they had encountered. In a similar 1999 Briles survey of 5,000 working women, 75 percent reported having been mistreated and undermined by a female co-worker. The most common transgressions: women who took credit for or stole other women’s ideas, or who made misleading or false statements about others’ integrity or job performance.

“Every woman who works in the corporate world has a story to tell you about some crazy woman boss she had who made her life hell,” says Jane Rosen, 48, who spent 20 years in communications and today is working on a book, My Life as a Corporate Goddess. “For me,” Rosen says, “it was someone who was jealous that senior execs were very comfortable working with me, and she started telling people untrue things about my performance.”

For Cheryl Green, 52, it was another African-American colleague who pretended to befriend her while “bad-mouthing and demeaning” Green’s performance to superiors. Green, who today heads the Green Resource Group in Bethesda, Md., confronted the woman, who acted as if she had not done anything wrong. She then continued to disparage Green behind her back.
Soledad O’Brien, CNN’s morning anchor and the mother of four, remembers getting an e-mail from a viewer who criticized her for working long hours and traveling. O’Brien should instead be at home with her children, the message said. The sender? Another woman.

Patricia Sueltz, a former Sun Microsystems executive vice president and now chief executive of Internet content protection outfit SurfControl PLC in Scotts Valley, Calif., recalls how a female manager told her to “reconsider her career ambitions” after Sueltz refused to come into the office while out on maternity leave. Says Sueltz: “That was a big lesson that just because someone is female, it does not mean she will be supportive.”

Reasons Why, Not Excuses

It’s ironic. The very reason that working women can’t afford to keep each other down – too few women in senior positions – is the very reason they often do. 

Few females at the top often can result in turf protection. Believing the senior ranks only have room for a few women, those who make it may keep other women down. When a 60-year-old broker in Manhattan joined an international commercial real estate firm in 1985, there were six senior female brokers and some 80 senior men. Fifteen years later, when she left the firm to start her own, no new women had reached the senior ranks because “the original six sabotaged new women who came into the firm,” admits the broker, who requested anonymity. As a result, many women quit.

Self-preservation does not surprise Leora Tanenbaum, author of Catfight: Rivalries Among Women – From Diets to Dating, from the Boardroom to the Delivery Room (Harper Paperbacks, 2003). “It’s risky for a woman with power to help women who have a minority of power. Many believe, often correctly, that they can’t take that risk.” With few women in the most senior jobs, this issue continues even today.

Feelings of insecurity may cause an exec to act out. “Bullies have low self-confidence and bring others down to make themselves feel better,” Briles says. And it’s a habit learned early on – “since seventh grade,” adds Adena Berkman Conway, co-founder of Berkman Fives, a New York-based firm that helps women manage their careers.

Burnout is Jane Rosen’s theory about why senior women may not reach out in support. “A lot of women who get to the top have worked so hard, and they just don’t have the energy left to care for others,” she says.

Jealousy is another issue. Russian-born Luda Kopeikina, chief executive of Boston-based Noventra Corp., which brings new technologies to market, recalls a time early in her career when she asked a former female peer for help with a new product launch. The woman looked at Kopeikina and said, “Luda, you are so obnoxious. You roll into my office and take my time ….” Kopeikina was forced to get the information she needed from other executives, but once the two women became friends, Kopeikina asked her colleague why she had called her obnoxious. “She said she was envious because everything seemed so easy for me,” says Kopeikina, who recently authored The Right Decision Every Time: How to Reach Perfect Clarity on Tough Decisions (Prentice Hall, 2005). “I couldn’t believe she was jealous! I came to this country pregnant, with 90 bucks and a 40-pound suitcase.”

Women can be more judgmental of each other than male colleagues are of one another. Whether it’s how to dress (flats or 3-inch heels) or how to balance career and family (leave the office at 5 p.m. or stay late), more choice means more occasions to disagree, and it’s tempting to judge others who make different decisions. Rosen adds that some women may just have higher expectations for women vs. men. “If a male boss is mean, he’s an asshole. If a woman boss is mean, we feel betrayed because she is one of the sisters. She is one of us.”

Being tougher on younger women is another trend among older female colleagues, at least from the point of view of Berkman Conway’s young clients. “The women who came up before us paid their dues and say, ‘Now it’s your turn,'” says Berkman Conway, who is 34.

Erika Mangrum, the 40-year-old president and founder of $3.5 million Iatria Spa and Health Center in Raleigh, N.C., recalls such hazing from her days in corporate America. “One female co-worker worked extremely hard to get where she was. She never coached, mentored or brought along other women in the company, and she was one of the few people in a position of power who could do that. It was a terrible tragedy. Other women resented her for not doing anything to help them.”

What Goes Around…

Whatever the reasons, no one wins when women don’t support each other. Perhaps the most detrimental fallout is a scenario Evans has seen play out: Two or more women disparage each other while vying for a job, and in the end the position goes to a man.

When Ellen Slaby, a 48-year-old senior marketing executive for a Boston-based software company, learned a female vice president was making petty criticisms about her, the VP lost Slaby’s loyalty. “So when this woman came under fire for her own performance, I was less willing to try to help her,” she says.

Cheryl Green’s female colleague who smiled to her face but bitched about her behind her back was eventually fired. “She had done enough underhanded stuff that she caused more problems than she was worth,” Green says.

As for the executive that Erika Mangrum says never helped up-and-coming women? Eventually that woman stopped being promoted. “I think it was because she did not have the support of anyone under her,” Mangrum says. Perhaps the saddest repercussion: At the woman’s retirement party, hardly anyone showed up.

Showing Support

It starts with not talking behind each other’s backs. “I have seen backstabbing between women more times than I’d like to recall,” says Beth Shaw, founder of the $4 million YogaFit Training Systems Worldwide in Redondo Beach, Calif. Shaw, 39, has seen her own co-workers “gang up” on each other. She encourages her mostly female staff to talk about problems with each other directly. “Women do react more sensitively than men, but I also think men are not as afraid to confront a situation,” Shaw says.

Indeed, confrontation is not easy, especially for women who often feel pressure to be nice. “Women grow up thinking successful relationships are conflict-free and defined by how much we please each other,” says Nan Mooney, author of I Can’t Believe She Did That!: Why Women Betray Other Women at Work (St. Martin’s Press, 2005). Out of fear of seeming mean, some women choose to talk about performance problems with everyone except the woman who has the problem.

CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien, 39, welcomes critiques. “Women are helpful when they give blunt advice. I want someone who will give me the straight scoop on my performance. I don’t want to be coddled.” Several years ago, O’Brien’s former Today colleague Katie Couric took O’Brien aside and told her ways she could improve her on-air reporting. O’Brien was grateful, not insulted. “Some people might read it as not a nice thing. But I thought she was helping me in my career,” she says.

O’Brien returns the favor, going out of her way to help women when asked. Recently, a younger broadcast journalist e-mailed her about her struggles on the new job. “So I thought I could help her with a couple of tips,” O’Brien says.

Evans adds that women have an opportunity to help by telling each other what they know. “If you hear there are going to be layoffs and what some of the conditions are, tell the women who you care about. Help protect them,” she says. “If you know about something political going on and some woman is about to walk into a hornets’ nest, don’t keep it to yourself. Let her know what she is walking into.”

The new power babes, as Bushnell writes in Lipstick Jungle, “want to be around other powerful women. They want women to be ruling the world.”

And even simple shows of support go a long way. Says Evans: “The more we help each other, the more we all move toward greater success.”

From Sniping to Sabotage: How to Handle the Bad Apple
After 28 years at Xerox Corp., Nancy Morris, 57, has tactfully dealt with unsupportive women at every level. “In general, the women I know are very supportive,” says Morris, vice president of marketing integration for Xerox North America. That said, Morris has developed some surefire ways to deal with bad behavior.

The Gossip. “If women are just gossiping and sniping behind your back, rise above it,” Morris says. Refuse to be drawn into cafeteria chatter. Chalk it up to their problem. Confronting a gossip is worthless; let her self-destruct.

The Backstabber. If a woman of equal authority is talking about you to a superior or other colleagues, do not ignore it and do not counteract her verbal jabs with your own. First, try to resolve the situation with her in private. Morris recommends straight talk couched in collegiality.

Ongoing trouble. If the backstabbing continues, it’s time to outmaneuver. “Not overtly,” Morris says. For example, if the woman continues her attacks in meetings, anticipate them. Before a big presentation, make “house calls” to all decision-makers. Review your presentation and gain their support. If they disagree with your plan, understand why so you are prepared to address objections.

When it’s your boss. Performance is key if the saboteur is your boss. The trick is to get out from under her in a very positive way. Says Morris: “Go to her and say, ‘Jill, it has been great working here and I have learned a lot, but it is time for me to move on. I would like to talk about opportunities in other areas, and I need your support.'”

When you’re tempted. No matter how horrible a female colleague is, avoid speaking ill of her. Trash-talking is easy. It is sometimes even fun. But resist it for the good of all women. Adds Morris: “I have had very good relationships with women peers. We have just locked arms and taken the hill together so men can’t use us against each other.”

This article originally appeared in the June.July 2006 issue of PINK Magazine.

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