Female Relationships at Work

We don’t know how to overtly compete like men do...We cut you out of an email maybe, or bad mouth you behind your back. And then that war gets very deep and goes on for a very long time.
— Kathi Elster
These women work for the U.N. so let's hope they genuinely get on (photo used with  Creative Commons license )

These women work for the U.N. so let's hope they genuinely get on (photo used with Creative Commons license)

The first time I did a show about women's relationships at work I felt guilty. This wasn't a happy story I was doing, but a piece about how poisonous things can become among women in the workplace. I felt bad because the idea that women have it in for eachother, that they're 'catty' and mean, is generally accepted, and it harms women. Female women-haters have become a popular stereotype.

The problem is, many of us have experienced some version of this behavior in our own lives. Some people even quit jobs because they can't take it any more. So I'm talking about it again, with the hope we can bring some understanding to this kind of behavior - and change it.

I had a great conversation last week with Kathi Elster and Katherine Crowley of K Squared Enterprises. They focus full-time on solving relationship issues at work. I just released a whole show about this today, but here are some quick points I picked up from our conversation.

  • Back when we lived in caves and men roamed around for food, women had to protect their offspring. The men competed and sometimes got killed doing it. It was our job to keep the next generation alive, and we befriended other women as part of this tactic. So we evolved not to compete openly like men, but covertly. This instinct lives on in us today.
  • Covert competition is responsible for a lot of less-than-appealing female behavior - in and out of work. But most of us are totally unaware of the extent to which we engage in it.
  • Women and men are harder on female bosses because we expect women to be nice. We don't necessarily expect that from men. So the next time you're inclined to label your boss a bitch, consider for a minute: if a man behaved like that would you feel the same way about him? Or would you just accept it?
  • Women tend to personalize business behavior - most men don't. So we're likelier than men to amp up the drama because we get upset and take it all personally.
  • Some studies suggest playing competitive sports sets women up for life in the office fast-lane. A lot of young girls play sports but many drop out as teenagers. If women were socialized to be more openly competitive, as men are, maybe some of this underhand competition would disappear, along with its harmful consequences.
  • Some senior women find it hard to be generous to their younger female colleagues because they faced such hardships on their own way up the ladder.
  • If you're a woman who's in a bad situation with a female boss, you could be piling on without realizing it. Take a step back, look at what's going on purely from a business perspective, and divorce yourself from the emotion. To hear about all this in more detail, tune into the latest show.

Everyone's a Coach

Photo by Carlos zgz

Ever since women and work became my main reporting beat I've begun to notice something: lots of self-employed professional women are coaches. Or at least they call themselves coaches. If I look at bios on Twitter I see the word 'coach' appear startlingly often. And the more time I spend there the more female coaches I see - and they all seem to work with women.

It seems pretty much anyone can hang out a shingle as a coach. The industry isn't regulated and coaches come in many forms - life coaches, career coaches, executive coaches (who, from what I can work out, tend to work with companies as well as individuals - but if you're a coach feel free to set me straight). I haven't tracked down much in the way of statistics yet, although this study claims the life coaching industry in the US is worth $1 billion a year. That's a lot of people looking for some big life changes, and paying for them too - and I would wager the majority are women. We know women tend to seek outside help for their problems more than men do.

I wonder if this apparent glut of coaches comes as part of the whole female empowerment movement. If it does, you could argue it's good - that more people want to help women discover what makes them tick and makes them happy both at work and in life. Or maybe it's fueled by women leaving corporate life after many years and starting career number two as a coach, eager to use their experience to help others.

I suppose I should admit that as a fully paid-up curmudgeon raised in Britain I can't help being a bit suspicious of the American attitude of endless positivity that fuels the whole self-improvement industry. I'm not anti self-improvement. I just want the real thing. How is someone who may be feeling vulnerable and desperate for advice meant to tell what constitutes solid, valuable help versus the more woo-woo stuff that's out there?

I'd love to hear from anyone who's either used a career or life coach or is one.