Episode 69: Working with Other Women

Many women are shocked when their female boss is not nice to them. Whereas I don’t think they’d be as shocked when a male boss isn’t nice to them.
— Katherine Crowley

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, why can it be so difficult to work with other women?

“We don’t know how to overtly compete the way men do. So men will compete on a day to day basis, say ‘I’m gonna bring you down,’ then go out for a beer at night – well, we don’t. We will cut you out of an email maybe, or bad mouth you behind your back…”

But have you ever considered you might be part of the problem?

“What I find is that many women are shocked when their female boss is not nice to them. Whereas I don’t think they’d be as shocked when a male boss isn’t nice to them.”

Coming up, we look at female relationships at work – and how to handle an undermining boss.

If you’ve been listening to the show since the start you may remember a podcast I did in 2013 called The Mean Girls Edition. I felt conflicted about it. Because let’s face it – the world is full of stereotypes and clichés about women being horrible to eachother. But I did it because I knew a lot women have problems with other women at work. And since that show went out I’ve continued to get emails from listeners outlining bad situations with female colleagues. These listeners often say they just prefer to work with men – that view is borne out in some surveys by the way.

And before we kick off today’s show I just want to say that my last job where I worked in a female-dominated environment was fantastic – it was a small office, it was public radio, and we were all friendly and supportive of one another. I miss it.

And I’m sure there are lots of other workplaces like that out there. But in this show we’re tackling the darker side of female relationships. I met two women recently who spend a lot of time thinking about this. They run their own company and help people manage difficult relationships at work.

“My name is Katherine Crowley and I work as a career and life coach at K Squared Enterprises…and I’m Kathi Elster and I’m an executive coach and a career coach.”

They’ve written a few books on office life: Working for You Isn’t Working for Me, Working with You is Killing Me, and Mean Girls at Work.

I started off by telling them about some of the reaction I had from listeners the last time I decided to cover this topic…

AM-T: “One of them said, ‘I wish you wouldn’t do this because it perpetuates stereotypes against women,’ and I agree, but on the other hand, it’s true – and I want to talk about what people are experiencing in their work lives. And I’ve received plenty of emails from women telling me, ‘I have a very unsupportive female supervisor,’ so miserable that they’ve left…so what’s going on there? What are some of the dynamics?"

Katherine: “Well, Ashley…

AM-T: “Where do we start?” [laughing]

Katherine: “Well we start with something you referenced when you contacted to us. Which is we are designed differently. Women are designed through history to tend and befriend. Because of being the quote, weaker sex, in the days of being out there in the caves, they had to bond in order to protect the children, so they had to bond, they had to make friendships. At the same time women are most comfortable not with vertical but with horizontal power structures. The female animal, primates, are also more comfortable with horizontal structures, so this is fairly innate.”

Now that is interesting. I have never liked that whole hierarchy thing myself. I have no interest in climbing a ladder. And I used to think that meant I wasn’t ambitious, but I’ve come to realize it just means I’m not that competitive.  I like working with other people. And yes, I instinctively try to bond with other women. The problem is, my attitude isn’t really suited to a typical workplace.

“So the challenge when you get into the workplace, the workplace is not horizontal. So if I have a woman boss, my brain has this expectation that she should be treating me as if I’m her equal and as if we are friends. So employees are harder on their female bosses than they are on their male bosses. At the same time, female bosses often have a hard time when they sense that pushback from their female employees and I think often become rather harsh authority figures to those members of their staff.”

Kathi: “I think it’s fascinating that a lot of it is innate and the way we are structured as women, and there’s very little written or talked about it. We love the work of Pat Heim, she wrote In the Company of Women, we highly recommend it. It’s a little dense but it explains that women want to be friends before they want to be anything else. And we don’t know how to overtly compete like men do. Men will face competition a daily basis, then go out for a beer at night – well, we don’t. We cut you out of an email maybe, or bad mouth you behind your back…and then it becomes very covert, a smile to your face while hurting you in the back. And then that war gets very deep and goes on for a very long time.”

She says some women know perfectly well how passively hostile they’re being, but other times, it’s unconscious. And some situations seem to send our competitive instincts into overdrive…

Kathi: “So what happens in the workplace – but I want to get out of the workplace for a minute. Where I felt the worst woman on woman behavior was in the playground. It was when I had a small child. I pulled myself out of it, I thought, well, I won’t have any mother friends. And I actually never did acquire any.”

AM-T: “That’s unusual…"

Kathi: “No, I think it’s pretty much the story…women may make friends with other mothers but they lose them over time. It’s very problematic – it’s not just the workplace, it’s in every area of life.”

She says women have to be nicer to one another. But getting there comes with admitting that competition is a natural instinct for many of us, we’re just not used to expressing it. Most of us aren’t exactly socialized to compete, after all.

I told Kathi and Katherine the story a listener told me last year about working in a female-dominated company.

AM-T: “Feminism was part of its mission, right, it was about making the world a better place, and she was the one who said ‘I have never worked in a less supportive environment than this’…so what’s going on there, though, if we want to be nice, why aren’t we?"

Katherine: “Well, it has everything to do with awareness and that is what we are trying to bring out with our book – if we are designed to be covertly competitive then of course a woman, a feminist organization is going to have plenty of covert competition going in there if no one is aware of it. The other thing women have to own is that we’re very averse to criticism. We are very sensitive, we care a lot. In fact the male business owners and leaders who spoke to us said women are the best workers because they invest their whole solves in work. And that’s great except when you then take personally the behavior of all the other women around you. And that’s the other challenge we have, we tent to personalize business behavior. We have – literally we have 40% more connective tissue between the left and right lobes our brain. Feelings get stirred in there.”

Oh, so guilty. And forget the workplace – that explains a lot of problems between men and women in general.

Kathi says a huge part of all this is women actually owning up to the fact we have some pretty unpleasant tendencies…

“I grew a lot in writing this book and I saw a lot of my own behavior that was far from perfect. I’ve had to change a lot myself and it’s not easy. And in dong it, of course I’ve taught my family to say, ‘that was mean girl Kathy’ whenever I talk about another woman negatively, which is something I tend to do. I’m learning to stop doing that. This is not an easy thing we have to unlearn and change.”

But some women are prepared to come clean about their lack of support for their fellow females…

Katherine: “I actually had a very candid conversation with the senior vice president of a major bank – and she admitted that she suffered and worked so hard to get where she is that it’s very hard for her to be generous to her younger female executives…and I think that is not uncommon, it’s like the famous medical school system where the interns have to suffer the same as the doctors did to earn their degree - that women who have finally made it can often feel like, OK, I’m not going to give you a break because I had to work so hard to get to this place.”

AM-T: “And that’s the complaint of course that so many younger women have. That I’m not getting the mentoring I expected from this woman or the ladder has been pulled up behind her. And it does seem very sad to me that that has to happen – but she probably looks at these whippersnappers and thinks, why should I lend a hand?”

Kathi: “Right. And I also think we come from a little bit of starvation, women, especially the ones who have fought to get here. I think we think there are so few opportunities, I’m not giving anything away. And I think that’s a mistake also because women can now make more opportunities for other women. And there are more small businesses started by women than men because women like that flexibility of time and they also don’t like the hierarchical structure…so there are more opportunities for women business owners to really support other women. The corporate structure is so male dominated…I don’t know how that is going to change. It’s going to take a while.

And the big surprise in our book was that men liked it. Because, and if we can help men help other women support women that would be helpful. Because they would see cat fights and they didn’t understand why they were going on, why they were not letting it go. And we don’t, we hold on to resentment a lot longer than men do. And we have to understand that about ourselves and work on it. So I don’t want to exclude men from this equation, I think they can play a role in it.”

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And talking of men…I wanted to get Kathi and Katherine’s opinions on something another Broad Experience listener wrote to me about. She had been in academia. Ultimately she left because she had such a bad experience with her female supervisor. She said this woman undermined her all the time and was always stressed out and negative. At the end of her email she mentioned the men in her work life...

AM-T: “One of the interesting things she said which again, is such a cliché…she said, ‘This and past experience has left me with a decided preference for working with men. In general I have found men in the workplace to be much more well adjusted, calmer, less stressed, less inclined to play mind games and spread rumors and more literal in their dealings. They also tend to be and give concrete advice…’

“I mean there’s a lot packed into that and it’s completely anecdotal, but some of the things she says about men I’ve heard other people say too. So is it unfair, or fair?"

Kathi: “You know because we go into corporations and we deal with relationships we see a lot of bad men. So let’s be honest, not all men are as perfect as she just said. But the thing about men is they are not as relational at work, they don’t take it as personally – it’s work, you go to work and you go out at night. They don’t process it and think about it as much as women do. So they may appear to this woman as easier to deal with than other women.”

She says if a woman is in a situation like this with a female supervisor she has to take a look at herself and her own behavior as well…because she could be exacerbating a bad situation. We’ll talk more about this in a minute. 

Katherine says there may be something else going on here…another unconscious bias at work.

“What I find is that many women are shocked when their female boss is not nice to them. Whereas I don’t think they’d be as shocked when a male boss isn’t nice to them. And I recently spoke to someone who’s got a new job and her male boss said to her: ‘I don’t want to talk to you unless I absolutely have to.’  And she’s accepted it, like OK, he doesn’t like talking. Period. Can you imagine if a female boss said that to her female employee – ‘I don’t want to talk to you unless I absolutely have to’ – what label do you think that female employee would give to that female boss?”

AM-T: “Bitch.”

Katherine: “Thank you. Again to me it’s about awareness – we’re always better people when we’re working on a certain topic, learning…so I now have to catch myself if I’m in the company of a woman who is either very capable or very attractive and I can feel my competitive spirit come in. And I have to say, OK, I’m feeling competitive with her…it doesn’t mean I’m then a bad person, it just means I may have to reel in my covert tendencies and if I want to compete with her I may need to do it in a more outright fashion.”

So awareness is great. But what if you’re aware of the warped dynamics in your office…but the other person is clueless?

AM-T: “Let’s just take the example of a female employee and a female boss. So the woman is in the lower power position and she has a boss who seems to be undermining her or is mean or whatever. How do you deal with that, because you’re not in the power position? It’s all very well being aware. If you’re aware and she’s not, what are you supposed to do?”

Kathi: “Well, so it’s a little hypothetical but the first thing you want to do is check your own emotions, because we’ll take it very personally and get very upset, and get to the facts…and be able to go to her and say real factually, ‘I was not invited to this meeting and this is something I’m working on,’ or ‘I noticed I wasn’t given this project, why didn’t I get it?’ Go to her factually and see if you can have a professional relationship with her, not an emotional one.”

Katherine: “And in Mean Girls At Work we have a process called ‘Don’t Go There’ – the first thing you want to do is rein in the less productive behaviors…so you don’t go to your colleagues and say she’s such a b----, I can’t stand her, look what she did to me, bla, bla, bla. But you may need to go to somebody about what you’re experiencing to sort out exactly what’s going on. If you realize OK, this queen bee, she feels threatened – then there may be things you can do to help her feel less threatened. You may need to acknowledge her experience, you may need to give her credit for something she helped you with, you may need to give her credit for something that you accomplished but say how her support actually has facilitated this for you…so there are ways you can work with the individual with that knowledge, the knowledge of their insecurity or seamy underbelly so to speak…and still be professional and move your career forward.”

AM-T: “You know what you said about don’t go off and gossip to your colleagues, well of course that’s what we all do.”

Kathi: “That’s the first thing we do. Because women have to talk it out, and that’s a beautiful thing. But you want to find a mentor or sponsor or someone outside the company that you can talk it through and they won’t feel the emotion because they weren’t there, and then they’ll be able to say OK, so what’s really going on here, and come up with a strategy about how you can approach your boss. So it’s OK to talk it out, just don’t talk it out over and over again to your colleagues. That’s not good, it’s detrimental.”

Katherine: “In our executive coaching we help a good number of women with these exact situations - we’re processors so we need to get it off our chest…we will let them air the whole situation and then we will say OK, what is going to help you the most professionally here? To think of it from an objective perspective. And what are the business tactics you can take? So if you want to be invited to next meeting, say, ‘I’m sure it wasn’t your intention but I would prefer in the future to be included in this meeting, here are my reasons for doing that.’ Follow up with an email, saying ‘thank you so much for listening, I look forward to the next meeting.’ Totally professional. Not, ‘You always do this to me, I know you have it in for me,’ or some other way of attacking. Usually we’re quiet, quiet, quiet, and then boom – and by the time you get to the boom it’s not going to be a constructive conversation and you’re the person who’s going to look petty and personal.”

True. But it can be so hard when you’re upset by something to keep your emotions at bay and the facts at the forefront.  

AM-T: “You’ve seen these tactics work, you’ve seen these situations improve, because I think people would really like to hear about that. Because I do think people tend to get to a point and then they just quit.”

Kathi: “Well I think sometimes you have to leave if it’s gone too far, but in general we help people turn the dynamic around and look at it more objectively and see how they may have made it worse and how they can get the relationship back on track. I’m trying to think of an example…”

Katherine: “Well, we’re working with someone who has a particularly mean boss right now and while her situation isn’t much ‘better’ she has stopped acting out – because if you fight and get in a power struggle with a mean boss then you’re the person who looks like the problem…so we’ve taught her to stay cool, to address each meeting from a professional position, to not get defensive when her boss comes back with a very attacking point of view and to just continue with her job. And what is happening is that mean boss’s behavior is becoming apparent in and of itself because this individual is no longer reacting. So that’s – it’s not a happier ever after thing, but now the company itself can hold her accountable for her behavior rather than seeing the employee as the problem.”

AM-T: “Well talking about holding somebody accountable…back in my many years of working for companies I can’t imagine going to HR and telling on a boss. Do you think that’s a bad idea or does it depend on the situation?”

Kathi: “Well it depends on the situation. Many, many people can’t go to HR, they can’t go to senior leadership. But Katherine brought up a really important point – when you’re in a tug of war, in a power struggle with your boss, or another woman, you look like the problem. So I think anybody that has to leave their job is because it’s gone so far – their relationship with this person has gone to the point where it’s probably not repairable and they look like the bad one.”

AM-T: “But also it’s so stressful….you are miserable and you can’t take it any more.”

Katherine: “Right. We are not encouraging you to stay in a sadistic situation. But we are encouraging you to do what you can to neutralize it.”

Kathi: “It just saddens me that so many women don’t want to work with other women and that they prefer to work with men. I’d just encourage them to continue to try and to look at their side of the picture. Is it always the other women or is it something they are doing to contribute to making the situation worse?”

Katherine: “And maybe this is just that I’m an optimistic person but I prefer to give us good intentions. We meet very few people who say, ‘I just want to screw as many people as I can today. I can’t wait to be mean when I leave my house in the morning.’ So we’re trying, and we have a ways to go, and women are now over 50% of the workforce, and certainly 60% of the advanced degrees. We’re just going to be dealing with eachother more, Ashley, not less. So it’s time to wake up and smell the perfume or something, you know – be willing to build your awareness. We all need to be willing to work on this."

Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster. You can hear them on their own podcast; they tackle different work problems every week – it’s called My Crazy Office.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. As usual I’d love to hear from you – does any of what we’ve talked about today ring bells for you? Do you have other ways that have worked to diffuse a dysfunctional situation? Let me know in the comments under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com or on the show’s Facebook page. And I’ll be posting links to a few articles about women supporting other women – or not – under this episode as well. 

Next time, the president of a famous American women’s college on making the switch from a male environment to a female one…

“I always joke that I underwent a hormonal transformation when I moved from Harvard to Barnard, and I say it jokingly but I actually mean it. Being at a place that is run by and dominated by men is fundamentally different from being at a place that is run by and dominated by women.”

That’s two weeks from now.

And don’t forget to check out my sponsor for this show, Foreign Affairs magazine – go to foreignaffairs.com/broad for a huge discount on a year’s subscription.

And if you can support this one-woman show with a donation that would be much appreciated – just hit the support tab on the website. If you can give as much as $50 you will receive a Broad Experience T-shirt in return. There’s a photo of that on the website too.

Thanks to Eliza-Sankar Gordon for her help with this episode.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. See you next time.