The Truth about Girl-on-Girl Office Crime.
Ok, we get it. Some men behave badly, and women shouldn't have to put up with it. Whether it's the corporate culture at Uber, the President's tweets about bleeding women, navel gazing in Silicon Valley about women in tech, it's a wild world out there.
Yet few women speak openly about one of the greatest threats to their advancement in the workplace: other women.
Girl-on-girl office crime is the most underreported form of sabotage in corporate America. Spare me your outrage. It happens all the time, and if you've never seen it, I'm happy for you.
For reasons that I will try to explain, the "new girl" in the office is too often immediately judged, sidelined, put down, and ridiculed not by guys, but by other girls. The put down isn't usually an obvious snub, it's more like a collective wary look from everyone lacking a Y chromosome.
I know that look. I've gotten that look. I've given that look.
I know that look
When I started in broadcast news a million years ago, there weren't many older women in the newsroom, especially in front of the camera. As the "new girl," I encountered mostly older men, and many of them were threatened by my presence, the same way any established employee can be concerned about someone younger, fresher, and cheaper. It didn't bother me. I worked hard. Looking back, the times my gender may have hurt me are balanced out by the times it may have helped.
As I approached the advanced age of 30, a new crop of females started coming into the newsroom. They were younger. They were talented. They were pretty. I was not happy.
I considered these women more of a threat than I did the male new-hires. Why? Perhaps because I couldn't flirt with them--even the most platonic heterosexual female-male dynamic can make a woman feel like she has a few tools in her toolkit. Perhaps I believed these new women would tear me down the same way I was secretly belittling them. Maybe I figured there was a limit to how many women one newsroom would hire.
At the same time, I began to have a few women in positions of authority over me-- assignment editors, executive producers, even senior management. This created a different sort of tension. I had never worked for a woman before, and I felt like I would have no power of persuasion with my own kind. Again, the man-woman work dynamic is usually different (it just is, so sue me). Generally, with a female supervisor, there was less friendly banter and more immediate suspicion. Where a spirit of sisterhood might have been created, there was instead a wall. It was a strange twist on sexism.
I know it's stupid, but I'm telling you the truth. Most men don't understand this, but they certainly profit from it. Let's stop blaming men for everything bad when we have work to do amongst ourselves.
Why the hate?
Why do women give each other such a hard time? I'm no anthropologist or biologist, but here's my theory: we are physically weaker. Sometimes that physicial difference means we band together in packs, or cliques, finding strength in numbers. But sometimes it means we turn on each other due to some ancient wiring which believes the more competition we have in the world of men, the tougher it will be to survive.
My instinctive defensiveness kicked in even as I realized not one woman was taking my job or slowing my advancement. In fact, a few were helping me. Sure, I occasionally watched in horror as a woman slept her way to a better position, but I can count on one hand the number of times that happened, and none of those ladies lasted long or got far.
At some point, I began to recognize the need to change my behavior. I started seeing a younger version of myself in these confident, talented women coming into the workforce. Rather than feel threatened, I decided to welcome them. Perhaps the birth of my daughter made me realize I wanted to help create a world where she could someday walk into a workplace and not get the cold shoulder from other women.
I remember one reporter in particular who was much younger than I was, much prettier, and better educated. When she was hired, we all pointedly ignored her. She knew it, and that only made her work harder. Then one day I saw a story of hers which was so good, yet so clearly done without help from anyone else, that I reached out to her to say, "That was great!" Her appreciative response told me she hadn't gotten a lot of positive feedback. Why hadn't I encouraged her before?
I also began thinking about the people who helped me along the way. Most were men, to whom I remain grateful. However, there were also a few women, and I remember one in particular early in my career. She was a local anchor at my station, and we were both trying to move up to a larger market. She was offered a job in a great city at a great station, a job I had been turned down for. She didn't want the job, but she suggested the news director give me another look. He did. I got hired. I will never forget her act of professional kindness.
Women have long memories
Younger women will remember those who were kind and supportive, and by setting a good example for them, these women may do the same when the next generational wave hits the job market. Camaraderie has the added benefit of sending a message to the office that women have each other's back, they're not stabbing each other in the back. In such an environment, harassment has fewer opportunities to flourish.
I still occasionally feel a bit of that initial negative reaction to a newcomer, "Oh no, another brilliant and beautiful woman has just been hired!" Old habits die hard. But I follow that brief hot flash with positive action: Welcome aboard! In the last ten years, I have tried to mentor younger women seeking advice (men, too). I hope in some small way I've started to effect change. I know the satisfaction it's brought me has outweighed any help I've given them.
Finally, it doesn't hurt to be nice to rising stars, because the woman you help today could someday be your boss. And if you become the boss, ladies, lift up good people regardless of gender.
Here's my advice, then. When the new girl starts, take her for coffee. Show her the ropes. Let her know she has the support of other women in the office. In the end, you will pull each other up and along, and that may do more to break through glass ceilings than anything else.