Why Women Don’t Always Support Other Women

Two women talking at work. Women supporting women.As speaker, author, consultant, and professor, my expertise centers on the broad topics of leadership, gender, emotional intelligence, hidden bias, and diversity & inclusion. There are many related sub-topics I discuss through presentations, workshops and business school courses, but the most common question, by far, that I receive from audiences is, “Why don’t women support other women?” So, I thought I’d write an article about it.

Why Women Don’t Support Other Women

As is the case with many gender-related topics, there’s not one simple answer that can explain the issue. When it comes to this question, there are several reasons why women may not support other women. First, there’s an invisible natural law in the female “culture” that helps to shape how women interact with other women at work and in their personal lives. It’s called the power dead-even rule, a term coined by Pat Heim and colleagues. This rule governs relationships, power and self-esteem.

For a healthy relationship to be possible between women, the self-esteem and power of one must be, in the eyes of each woman, similar in weight to the self-esteem and power of the other. In other words, these key elements must be kept “dead-even”. When the power balance gets disrupted (such as a woman rising in status above other women), women may talk behind her back, ostracize her from the group, or belittle her. These behaviors are to preserve the dead-even power relationship that women have grown up with their entire lives. Of course, this is a subconscious process. Most women are not aware of this invisible rule and what drives their behavior, but it is a big reason why women sometimes do not support other women.

A second reason relates to our emotional intelligence (EQ). In my research and book, The Power of Perception, I show that women at higher leadership levels tend to display more male-specific EQ competencies, such as assertiveness and confidence, and leverage less female-specific EQ competencies such as interpersonal relationships and empathy. So, if a female leader puts less of a premium on the value of relationships, she may not spend the time necessary to cultivate relationships with junior women. This is also called the Queen Bee Syndrome—when women behave in ways more typical of men to display toughness and fit in. For women at the very top, part of their success is convincing men that they aren’t like other women.

A third reason is when the competition for “spots” in favored in-groups increases, women are less inclined to bring other women along. I wrote about this in my last Forbes article titled Leadership, Gender and the Power of In-Group Bias. This can happen when there are few females in an organization or few females in leadership roles.

A fourth reason is that because of obstacles women face in their career and corporate environments, and the achievement of hard-fought success, their attitude toward other women is, “I figured it out, you should too.” Executive women are often overly encumbered with daily duties and responsibilities and don’t take the time to mentor and support young women.

Finally, some argue that patriarchal workplaces have socialized employees into believing, and consequently acting, like women are less valuable based on power, privilege and status. Thus, in workplace cultures that are more masculine, it makes it difficult for women to truly support each other.

What can we do?

I am happy to report that things are changing. A quote by former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, in her keynote speech at the Celebrating Inspiration luncheon with the WNBA’s All-Decade Team in 2006 served as the tipping point. She said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” This quote has been repeated by hundreds of women around the world, including heads of state and celebrities, and shows the collective shift in mindset by many women.
In addition, I’ve led presentations and panel discussions at women’s conferences on this topic and there are many women who are not only inclined to help other women, but truly believe that it’s our duty to help other women. There are lots of great examples of how women have already supported one another. And, it is true that younger generations, namely Millennials and Generation Z (hitting the workforce in 2020), are more proactive in helping women than older generations. This all bodes well for our future workplaces and I’m more encouraged than ever about our path forward.

I dive deeper into these issues in my best-selling book, The Power of Perception: Leadership, Emotional Intelligence, and the Gender Divide.

To learn more and access free resources, you can go to my website at drshawnandrews.com.

Article posted on Forbes.com and ForbesWomen.com on Jan. 21, 2020.