Women who treat other women poorly in the workplace out of professional competition learn this mindset in preschool. Beginning as young as 3 years old, when children begin to feel empathy, the behavior of bullying starts, according to an article from Michigan State University. Bullies first feel what it is like to put down another to make themselves feel better at this age, and sometimes these tactics learned in childhood stay with them until they are adults in the professional world.
After talking with women from different professional fields, one common theme was the bullying amongst women, and it stems from the misogyny of women against other women in the workplace. “There was an opportunity for a management position, and during the interview process, another woman came up to me and told me she had already been offered the job and accepted, so I backed out and went to look for another position. Unbeknownst to me, my male boss has been championing me for that position and asked me why I backed out, and I told him what I had been told and he said that was incorrect. We both suddenly realized that this woman had been trying to sabotage me,” Biomedical Marketing Consultant Sandra Revill said. This story contradicts the widespread belief that it is men who are misogynistic toward women, but as demonstrated, that’s not always the case. The roles can be reversed, and women can be just as prejudiced against other women.
This kind of experience is referred to as relational bullying. This includes spreading rumors, excluding others, and hurting another’s reputation, which becomes more prevalent throughout pre-teen and teenage years. This form of bullying is most popular among groups of girls, who are bullied significantly more than boys their same age. The National Center for Education Statistics finds that “a higher percentage of female students than of male students ages 12–18 reported being the subject of rumors (19 vs. 12%); being made fun of, called names, or insulted (16 vs. 12%); and being excluded from activities on purpose (9 vs. 4%).” If girls grow up in an environment where they always fight each other in their friendships without understanding how much damage this causes, this will show itself again when they become adults.
Women, as opposed to men, benefit more from a supportive network with other women. Women in executive positions thrive better in work environments where they have a small group of other women they can trust and communicate with. “Women seeking positions of executive leadership often face cultural and political hurdles that men typically do not,” an article from the Harvard Business Review states. “They benefit from an inner circle of close female contacts that can share private information about things like an organization’s attitudes toward female leaders, which helps strengthen women’s job search, interviewing, and negotiation strategies.” Having a group of all women allows the opportunity to share experiences and challenges that men may not encounter on a typical workday. This promotes a work environment where women feel supported and heard, allowing them to create better conditions to thrive professionally and personally.
In businesses where there can be very few women, the impact of a support group is only enhanced. By sharing their experiences, women can increase their positive impact on each other and their careers. “One of my best decisions was to build relationships with a couple of women that went to Harvard Business School when I did,” said Ginger Graham, former President and Chief Executive Officer of Amylin Pharmaceuticals and current owner of Ginger and Baker “When I was there, there weren’t very many women at all. There were three of us that became fast friends and so all these years later, we still are very close and we’ve helped each other through that whole time.”. Support from other women and shared conversations about everything in and outside of work can be vital. “Both of [my friends] are very powerful women executives, and so the fun part for me is we have a lot in common and nobody’s bragging or trying to be the best. We’re sincerely trying to help each other,” Graham said. If girls are taught the impact of having friends that share an expected level of respect and trust, this will help them succeed in their careers throughout their lives. There is no need for passive-aggressive competition or jealousy; instead, there’s a strong foundation of pure sincerity in wanting to support other women.
Though this may not apply to all women, it is proven to apply to most. When you look at the number of women CEOs at the S&P 500 companies, women only hold 8.2% of the total number of CEOs in 2023. Though this may not be a direct causation, this number can still be significantly increased if women started working more with each other than against. “I can think of two of the most vicious attacks – direct attacks – on me during my career and they were not men. They were women,” Beth White said, Chief Marketing Officer Advisor for Hammerspace.
This mentality of having to compete with other women or go as far as to attack other’s professional careers unknowingly causes more damage to women. It also teaches younger girls that they too must use the ways of bullying to compete at work. Women can do better if they decide to work in cooperation with their fellow female-colleagues rather than against.
Fitting in as a woman in a male-dominated company can be challenging. As we see in the elementary years, many young girls form groups with other girls, and young boys with other boys. In the workplace, these same dynamics can play out. “There were times where I mentioned I felt isolated and some of that would be, I’m sure, just completely unintentional. It’s just that the guys were comfortable with the guys, and I wasn’t one of the guys,” Sheila Pickett said, Marketing Consultant. As a woman entering an industry dominated by men, it can be hard to fit in. The idea of being “the first” can be daunting and present an entirely new list of challenges. Work relationships are meaningful but more difficult to navigate if there’s a lack of shared interests. Being the first woman can come with preconceived notions from others, which could be an added hurdle in allowing her to make connections at work.
Even with other women in the company, it can be challenging to become friendly with them initially. “Later in my career, I began to see some of the pressures of being ‘the only one,’” Graham said. “When there are very few diverse people in a group, the focus is on ‘fitting in.’ Trying to be accepted. You can imagine the first woman who worked very hard to be accepted. She had won the respect of the team and when another woman shows up, it puts the first one at risk. If all of a sudden, the first woman is seen as affiliating with the new woman, she could be rejected by her peers after working so hard to be accepted,” she said. A woman may not wish to create any bonds with other women that could put her professional position at risk. However, it is important to learn why it is actually helpful to one’s career to have a group of women that support each other, and eliminate the need for competition between women.
If young girls are able to realize their potential in helping each other, women will have a greater chance of succeeding throughout their professional lives. If they continue to put each other down and target each other, they will revert to the idea that bullying is the way to compete with other women. Practicing teamwork will positively impact any child and consequently help more women in their professional futures. It will teach them the power of working together. “I unfortunately think that women have a long way to go in supporting each other and that’s where I see where we’re at today with empowerment—is empowering each other,” Pickett said.