Do Working Women Keep Each Other Down?

ByABC News via via logo

May 29, 2002 -- There has been a lot of press about "mean girls" lately, but do those playground bullies grow up to become mean women in the workplace, like the conniving Sigourney Weaver who tried to sabotage poor Melanie Griffith's career in the movie Working Girl?

Some new numbers suggest it might be true.

In 1999, women owned 9.1 million businesses in the United States, and held 48.9 percent of all managerial and professional jobs. But currently, there are only nine female CEOs positioned at the helm of America's 1,000 largest companies. A controversial book, In the Company of Women: Turning Workplace Conflict into Powerful Alliances by Pat Heim and Susan Murphy, suggests that frustrated female employees can blame the women they work with for keeping them from these top jobs.

While men certainly play a role in keeping women from the top of the corporate ladder, women often do more harm than good for their workplace sisters, Murphy said.

"They don't really like the term catfight, but it's a shorthand they know that everyone understands, men and women both," Murphy told Good Morning America. "And those catfights are sort of a dirty little secret that women don't like to talk about."

A recent Oxygen Media poll found that 65 percent of women resent women who are either in power, or act like they are. Women also acknowledged that among female co-workers there is backbiting and gossip, indirect acts of aggression that can thwart someone else on their path to success, Murphy said.

Heim used to run workshops for women in business entitled "How to Survive in a Male World," but workshop participants didn't seem to think that men were the ones holding them back.

"They'd say, 'yeah, that's true, but women are the real problem,'" Heim said. Murphy and Heim, who speak to about 50,000 people a year on gender and workplace issues, believe the problem is that women become close in the workplace, and when friendships between female colleagues go sour, they can wreak havoc in the office. Men do not have that problem, because they tend to be more reserved with one another at work, the authors say.

Snipers, Gossips in the Workplace

Heim and Murphy's mantra is that "female alliances keep females free," but in their book, they cite seven different types of difficult women in the workplace who work against that ideal: the Gossip, the Sniper, the Clam, the Saboteur, the Kitchen Sink Fighter, the Cabal Queen and the Super Bitch.

The "Gossip" is the woman who attacks other females from behind, rarely to their faces. To build allies, the Gossip will talk negatively about another female employee, but act like her friend to her face. If confronted, the Gossip will pretend she has done nothing.

By contrast the "Sniper" will hide out in a crowd and try to get others not to take another woman seriously, by ridiculing her ideas in meetings, and rolling her eyes when she speaks. Good Morning America talked to workers at Jane, a hip New York-based magazine aimed at young women, which has a mostly female staff. One woman had worked with a Sniper at her previous job.

Senior Editor Karen Catchpole recalled that a female co-worker "actively resented me, actively wouldn't listen to my ideas or act on my ideas."

"One day I walked into the conference room after a meeting that we'd all had and I found a piece of paper that someone had obviously left behind and I picked it up and looked at it," she said. "And it said 'things that annoy me about Karen.'"

So Catchpole did what she acknowledges is game-playing: she stuck a Post-it note with the words "you dropped this" written on the offending paper, then folded the paper and placed it on the female colleague's desk, which was right behind her own.

"It was never spoken of, which I think was a big mistake," Cathchpole said.

Heim says that Catchpole should have confronted the other woman in a positive way, saying something like, "I found this note, and I think we need to talk about it." From childhood, women are taught to be indirect and not to upset the apple cart, but that behavior gets in the way of business, she said.

Some new biological research found that male response to stress is "fight or flight," but the corresponding female slogan — dating back to prehistoric times — is more like "tend and befriend," Heim said. Under threat, males can fight back, but females, with their babies, can't run away and keep their babies safe at the same time. Instead, they tend to pull together with other females.

Ummm … You’re Fired

Another problem office type is the "Clam," someone who provides no give and take. If you ask if she is OK, she will say she is fine, even when she clearly is not. Women become Clams when they want to say something is wrong, but don't know what the problem is. That increases the Clam's power, but decreases the power of those dealing with her.

A Clam came into play when Jessica Tolmach Plett, Jane's fashion director took a job, and her predecessor in the position was never told that she was fired.

"So she called up to RSVP for all the shows and they said 'well, actually we have Jessica Plett coming,' " Plett said. "And she said 'what are you talking about?' And that was how she found out that I had been hired."

The woman who had hired Plett and the other woman "just couldn't face having a conversation," Plett said. "She couldn't look her in the eye and say 'this isn't working and I'm making a change.' So she just didn't."

There are a number of other unsavory types that the book mentions.

The "Saboteur" will try to demoralize another female employee in any way she can. She is the sort who will intentionally send along a computer virus, fail to pass along important messages, or make nasty remarks to your boss, like "I haven't seen her all day."

The "Kitchen sink fighter," is someone who stores up a sinkful of past problems — you were late, you didn't get my fax, you didn't tell me — to deflect attention from herself when she makes mistakes.

The "Cabal Queen" goes around the office getting people to side up against another woman, much like teens group together to gang up on someone to tease.

Lastly, there is the "Super Bitch," a woman who is manipulative, conniving, controlling and hostile. She blames others when something happens that is her fault, and takes credit when it does not belong to her She will give compliments to get something from another female worker, but will turn on the same woman in a rage if she crosses her. Like schoolyard bully girls, women who are mean to other women in the workplace are generally people who don't feel good about themselves, the authors said.

Don’t Get Too Friendly

For another Jane staffer, the problem she had at a previous job was that she was friends with someone in a subordinate position.

"I had an assistant who I ended up being very good friends with," said Meejung Kim, an advertising director at Jane. But at times, the assistant was more interested in chatting about dinner plans after work then she was about actually doing any work.

"And she's obviously my assistant and needed to get stuff done," Kim said. "But I would do the total dance. And there were times when it wasn't done by the end of the day."

Heim says that you can have friendship, to some degree, with co-workers, but you cannot have the type of closeness that you would have with a regular girlfriend.

"You can chat in general, about the kids, but not the intimate stuff, like your sex life or divorce," she said. "You have to be a little distant."

Heim and Murphy also have some other suggestions for women in the workplace:

Be aware of power in your relationship with another woman, and realize sometimes you may have to play it down.

Proactively manage what Heim and Murphy call the "chips" you have with another woman. You rack up chips by doing things for another person. If you have a chip surplus, and have to have a difficult discussion, it is easier to manage.

If you have to assert power, do so gently, as coming on strong can be hurtful.

If you have problems with another women, confront the woman instead of letting it fester.

Do these power-reducing techniques work in a world where you deal with man and women? Murphy says it is a "double bind," because men value confidence. But both she and Heim have been executives at Fortune 500 companies and found that the solution is being flexible with how they act around men and women colleagues.

To share your input with Heim and Murphy, go to www.heimgroup.com or www.consult4business.com.

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