I’ve spent my life denying it, but now that I’m older, I have to raise the white flag. Women can be backstabbers. Before you respond in horror, let me explain.
A few weeks ago we talked about women undermining and sniping at each other at work. Of course, nobody knows why. It’s a big mystery. Why can’t women just get along?
A fascinating book explains it. In the Company of Women – Indirect Aggression Among Women: Why We Hurt Each Other and How To Stop is different from everything you thought you knew about workplace behavior, because researchers study men. These authors, who’ve trained over 20,000 workers at Fortune 500 companies, paint a different picture of women.
And we need to know this. Consciously or not, we women try to act like men as we climb the corporate ladder, and we struggle and sometimes fail without knowing why. We’re discouraged and confused, but there’s a logical reason for the difference, and the authors boil it down to this:
Men relate to each other hierarchically, but women relate to each other as peers.
Men form a team, fight for their positions in the hierarchy, and then fall in line (more or less). The leader may not be liked or respected, but everybody accepts that he’s in the driver’s seat. If a guy decides to make a run for the top, there’s bloodletting, but once he gets there, everybody settles down again.
But women aspire to a horizontal structure. We like to think we’re all equal. If a woman does something to rise above other women, or appears to think more highly of herself than is considered seemly, look out! The authors assert that, in the corporate setting, higher-level women have to make sure to maintain balance in the power relationship. Otherwise, they’ll be seen as too big for their britches, and the other women will make sure they fail.
I recommend this fascinating book. Here are my main takeaways:
- Display of Ego Among Women Can Hurt You Women tend to be more comfortable when a powerful woman plays down her importance.
- Power Must Be Equal For a positive relationship to be possible between two women, the self-esteem and power of both must be approximately even. (There are exceptions, as in a mentoring relationship.) This is called the “Power Dead-Even Rule,” and although it has profound impacts on all female relationships, it is invisible to most women. Here’s how you do that:
- We Must Share Power with Other Women The authors call it “chip theory.” Individual women hold a certain number of chips (positive attributes or actions). Beauty, wealth, poise, and intelligence are all chips. Chips are constantly exchanged to maintain even stature between women, and we do this naturally. If you get a compliment, chances are you’ll put yourself down in response, so as to keep the complimentor feeling good, too. That’s chip management, and it’s the strategy we use, consciously or not, to adhere to the Power Dead-Even Rule.
- We’re Under the Influence of Chemistry The female stress response (“tend and befriend”) results in the release of oxytocin, a calming chemical. In times of stress, women seek out other women with whom to commiserate. This can result in cliques and undermining. If the source of the stress is a woman, she’s toast.
- Ignore at Your Own Peril The authors say they often hear frustration from upwardly-mobile women who “don’t have time for such foolishness.” The authors respond: you can pay now or pay later, and later is when you lose control over the situation. There are biological, psychological, social, and cultural reasons why women relate to each other the way we do, and you can ignore it, or you can decide to add the knowledge to your skill set and save yourself a lot of grief.
The Good News
Most women care deeply about other women. Without women in our lives, we feel lonely and incomplete. We want to work together. We want each other to succeed. When we support each other, we’re unstoppable.
There’s way more to this book than what I’ve written, including some great self-tests and suggested strategies. I absolutely recommend it. (If you missed the first post on backstabbing women, click here.)