What is Holding Back Women at Work?

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Last week’s hullabaloo around Matt Lauer asking Christine Barra if she’d be able to balance being GMs CEO with motherhood and “do both well” caused all kinds of discussion and fury. All of the noise really got me thinking, again, about the current state of women in the workforce.

I’m a passionate supporter of women making their way to top leadership roles in Corporate America where we are outnumbered for many reasons, including gender bias. In some male dominated professions, we are underrepresented in nearly every role (think Sales and STEM). I am grateful, however, for what I perceive to be an increase in support from men and women for women’s challenges in the workforce, of late. On that note, kudos to Jill Rowley and Koka Sexton who both are using their strong influence in social media to raise awareness and encourage others to share their voice. Reading their posts last week inspired me to share mine. (Links to their recent and relevant posts at the end of this post.)

Though we face challenges with gaining equal representation and making progress in many male dominated fields, in my opinion, it’s not just “gender bias” and the things that men say or do that hold us back. Sure, I am annoyed with Matt Lauer – he should know better. I am absolutely outraged, however, with how common it is for women in Corporate America to sabotage and antagonize other women. This insidious female-to-female insensitivity is often hidden in plain sight and it has to stop.

What is Really Holding Back Women at Work?

There aren’t enough voices telling the stories of women being mistreated, bullied and, in some cases, sabotaged by other women. Yet, I believe that nearly every working woman has experienced or witnessed it. Is the relative quiet because we know the hypocrisy inherent in this behavior can completely discredit us and decrease our chances at evening out the numbers?

I met with a group of professional women the other night and this topic made for an intense conversation. Every one of us confessed to having experienced woman vs. woman drama in our careers – in various roles and types of companies. Over the years, I’ve heard countless disheartening stories but I’ve yet to see the large-scale awareness that could create positive change. So, I’ll share a personal experience in hopes that it will encourage other women to find their voice and do what they can to put a stop to women holding other women back in the workforce.

I worked in a sales support leadership role for a woman a few years ago who was a bad boss and should not have had any direct reports. She felt no sense of responsibility as a leader to empower or develop anyone on her team. At one point, I approached her to discuss my career path. She told me there was no career path within her group. I asked if she had suggestions for other groups that would allow me to progress my career. She advised that I “just ask around.” That was it, nothing more. I knew I had to get out of this situation ASAP.

Finally, it was time to submit my resignation and I met with my boss to do so. I told her I had accepted an opportunity in a highly visible leadership role that would allow me to focus on my passion, sales enablement. She said she was sorry to hear I was leaving.

Next, she explained to me that it was probably for the best, though, given my inability to balance my workload with being a mother and wife. I thought: SAY WHAT?!? What inability to balance? The one time I couldn’t balance was due to an unreasonable deadline on our VP’s pet project. She had agreed to the deadline and had volunteered me. I never complained about it – I knew there was no point – I just got it done. The project was a huge success and this was the thanks I was going to get?!

I was shocked, humiliated and enraged. It took me a minute but I realized what she was playing at. She needed a good excuse for when HR would ask her how she managed to drive a third employee away in a 6-month time period and “personal reasons” was just that. Just before my last day, she lead a conference call with the leadership team we supported and announced I would “be leaving our team for a role that will give her more work/life balance, especially with her young kids.” Not only was this a lie, it was inappropriate and insensitive to bring up my personal life/children in that context or setting.

If a man made these comments or behaved in this manner, you’d expect mass outrage and, possibly, a lawsuit. Maybe because I wanted to walk away gracefully, or because I felt sorry for this woman, I didn’t report any of her antics to HR. Hindsight has helped me recognize that I should have.

Infighting and insensitivity amongst women in the workforce undermines all the effort made by men and women, alike, to help level the field in Corporate Ameria. We have to be brave and call out the negative behaviors we witness and experience. I failed to have that courage in this situation, but I won’t make that mistake again.

I spent a lot of time trying to understand that female boss’ behavior. I came to the conclusion that, in order to survive in a male dominated field for so long, she likely believed she had to behave the way she perceived the men did. To her, survival meant becoming more “like them” instead of calling forth the natural skills most women have that make them incredible contributors and leaders.

Today, female leaders are bringing a whole new level of empathy and emotional intelligence to the C-Suite. These skills are differentiators for us and should not be stifled in favor of adopting a mostly outdated image of “Company Man.” Acting “like them” may inadvertently cause women to behave in ways that hold each other back. Being who we are will, in time, help catapult us to the top.

The world we need to get to allows both genders to leverage their strengths and weaknesses in a complementary manner on an equal footing. Until we get there, women must get better at supporting each other. We can start by mentoring women just starting their careers, by encouraging the ambition of our female peers, and by honoring the late-career women leaders who have long been paving our way. I can’t think of a better way to honor the working women (and men!) who’ve helped us get this far, than coming together to get over the finish line.

Please don’t forget to check out the following inspiring posts:

Koka Sexton's Post: “Let's Talk About Women in Sales” is here

Jill Rowley's Post: “Why Women Can't Be Leaders” is here

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