Women in the Workforce–Our Dirty Little Secret

March 13th, 2013

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, is making the rounds publicizing her new book Lean In:  Women, Work and the Will to Lead.  I haven’t read the book, but I’ve read interviews with Sandberg and commentary about the book so I think I have a good handle on the main points she tries to make.

Basically, she’s saying that women sometimes are their own worst enemies.  They tend to stand back and fail to be aggressive when aggression is needed.  The failure to appear aggressive is perceived by men as a lack of ambition.

Since I haven’t read the book, I don’t feel qualified to opine about it one way or the other.  I do, however, have an observation derived from interviews with women for my own book a few years ago.

According to Sandberg, women are their own worst enemies.  Based on lots of interviews I’ve conducted, I’d say women are also the biggest enemies of other women as well.

When my co-author and I interviewed women for Comeback Moms, we consistently heard the same theme over and over.

Women would tell us that their worst working experiences were with other women.  They’d share horror stories about bosses they hated and then tell us the boss was a woman.  A couple of them even said they never wanted to work for another woman again. Even though our topic was something totally different, we started asking these women to expound on their experiences with other women whenever they raised the issue.

We were flabbergasted.  We even debated for a time whether or not our book should be about women working with other women rather than women leaving the workforce to stay home with kids.

The fact that this kept coming up over and over again makes me think that there is something to this, but I still have to ask myself “why?”

Maybe it starts at a young age.  I have two boys, so I’m not much of an expert, but I do have lots of friends and relatives with daughters, and they constantly share with me some of the really rotten things girls do and say to one another.  I don’t hear a lot of “sisterhood” and helping each other get ahead.  It sounds more like a Darwinian world where only the meanest survive.

Also, from what I’m told, girls tend to make things a bit more personal than boys do.  When we’re younger, there isn’t much that’s off limits when it comes to critiquing fellow females.  Size, shape, and facial attributes or lack thereof are all open season. Boys really don’t seem to care.  They tend to focus more on themselves than others.

Making things personal also extends to slights or perceived slights.  I’ve been amazed at how boys can pretty much threaten to kill each other one minute and then hang out together the next.  I don’t think girls find this form of forgiveness quite as easy.

None of this translates well into the workplace.  I’ve personally worked in law offices where women didn’t mind adversely commenting on the weight or fashion sense of a fellow coworker when she wasn’t around.  Surely, this sort of thing doesn’t make for the foundation of a happy work environment.

As women discuss and explore the ideas presented in Sandberg’s book, I hope we also start to take a closer look at how we work together because if we continue to tear each other down, we needn’t bother worrying too much what men might be doing.  The damage is already done.