Backstabbing Women, Part 2

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?

BECAUSE IT’S BAKED IN. 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.)


  1. Sue Shoemaker says

    There is a new book (published May 16, 2013) entitled STILETTO NETWORK that is about women helping other women in the business world. Just wondering if anyone here has read it. Also wondering if it is a “sign” of a positive movement of women who have embraced what they have learned from books like IN THE COMPANY OF WOMEN, which was published in 2003. Could this be the beginning of a trend?

    (I have to admit the title of the newer book scares me…never have been, never will, be a fan of stilettos.)

    • says

      And a stiletto is also a knife! So I agree with you there. But just FYI, I don’t know if anybody will see your question as this post is pretty old. You’d get better results posting it on Facebook. Happy Memorial Day, Sue.

      • Sue Shoemaker says

        Thanks for responding so quickly, Lynn. Hope you are experiencing the kind of Memorial Day that brings you happiness too!

        Actually…I’m reading the book right now. I got the “pages for free” on Amazon and found that I was really interested in reading more. So far, I am finding that it is a book of stories about women helping women be the best they can be. (Glad I didn’t let the “scary title” stop me!)

        Thanks for the suggestion about using FB…however, I’m just not sure of where to post it on FB.

    • says

      Sad, sad, sad. The village where my mom’s farm was, and where my dad is buried, the town of Lefor, is currently listed as a ghost town, but our relatives have told us people are moving in, desperate for any place to live due to the oil crush. Wish I could find a place on the web to have a discussion about ND. I’m sure I could find one if I looked. Thanks for the link to Molidorf. Where do all the memories go? What of all the struggles, life, death, babies born, crops coming in, celebrations and wakes? Just a marker? (Snap out of it, Lynne.)

  2. Sue Shoemaker says

    I loved your book! Your characters and the lives they “created” were believable. I have known women like the ones who “settled” for lives of “quiet desperation.” Having taken three Road Scholar programs in the past year…I believe I am beginning to get to know more women like the ones in the CRS group.

    Your book hit “close to home” for several reasons…the first being that my husband and I enjoyed a 38 day “road trip” this winter that included two nights in Moab as well as a drive along I-70 through the mountains in Colorado.

    The second connection has to do with Karen’s “friendship” with Frieda. In the past six months, I have developed a friendship with a 93 year old woman who has been living at the local Hospice Residence where I volunteer. When I travel, I take pictures with my iPad, and she just loves looking at the pictures. It took us about three “visits” to look at all of the pictures from the winter road trip. This week I’m heading to Philadelphia with a high school band…she said she is looking forward to “going with me” through the pictures I take.

    Also, Frieda’s last name, Richter…is the same name as the people who lived across the road from my paternal grandmother…who was a German immigrant from the Austria-Hungary region. The town she grew up in, Molidorf, was destroyed in WWII.

    One final thing…I am married to a farmer and live on a farm in a rural area in the Thumb of Michigan with peaceful and wide open spaces. We are both “adult orphans”…so I could relate to Karen’s thought about being an “orphan” after her mother died.

    • says

      Wow, Sue, what a bunch of coincidences! I’m so glad it was meaningful to you. I felt so connected with my German/Hungarian relatives after visiting Dickinson…to think that now it’s all been spoiled by the oil boom just breaks my heart. So Dakota Blues is like a eulogy for that sweet little town. Thanks so much for telling me about all your connections to my story. I hope it gives you pleasure to know that I didn’t make up the immigrant tales; those were based on what my Mom told me. How rich life can be! Have a great week.

  3. Sue Shoemaker says

    Yes…I was that girl raised between two brothers, by very determined parents. Mom AND Dad served in the Navy during WWII. Mom’s “mantra” during our adolescent years was…DON’T BE HERD MINDED. It was her way of protecting us from “peer pressure”…and it helped to create some angst in my young life.

    You can imagine what a shock it was to go off to college and live with ALL women. College was hard enough, but add to that the socialization with women who “knew” and “understood” on some level that “invisible” rule…”The Power Dead-Even Rule.” CONFUSION was the name of the game I was playing.

    It wasn’t until I read a couple of books by Anne Wilson Schaef that I began to make some sense out of the behaviors, by men and women, that had created such confusion in my mind as an adult.

    Thanks for sharing your review and your insights regarding this book. The “chip theory” is interesting. Just as beauty is a “chip”…it may be that youth is a “chip” too. It’s funny…those are two chips we do nothing to “earn”…they just “happen.” They are both way outside of our control, and yet our lives as women are deeply affected by “societal expectations” regarding beauty and youth.

    (You do know that Hillary does not have a sister.)

    • says

      And it shows!
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Sue. I’ll check out the Schaef books. (I had sisters and they were so much more tuned into the woman thing. I was the dork of the three of us.)

  4. Sue Shoemaker says

    Something I have wondered about…does it make a difference if a girl is raised with or without sisters?

    • says

      Sue, are you that girl? Were you raised with only brothers? And are you asking because you feel differently about the woman-woman dynamic? If so, this would be an interesting thing to investigate. If it is true, I’d guess it’s about the girl being socialized more as a guy than as a girl, which sounds like a good thing to me. The feminine side will always be strong, but a little coaching in the ways of the Other Side would have to be a bonus.

  5. says

    OK. I’m convinced. I’m definitely going to read this book. Yesterday on the radio, the DJs were talking about a senior VP who came in and interrupted a meeting they were having with their producer without so much as an apology or even notice that he was interrupting. It was really interesting to hear what the callers had to say. The man all said, “He’s the boss – he can do what he wants.” The women all said, “It’s rude. We’re all human beings. Just be considerate.”

  6. says

    Wow. Thank you, Lynne, for synthesizing the book and sharing the authors’ opinions. In conversation with a table of women recently, an ER nurse talked about the difficulty of including alternative healing in a hospital setting. I muttered, yeah, men. She sharply asked why I assumed that. She shared that it was the women doctors who fought hardest agin’ it. Because they learned their place watching the males. The world will change when women have more women in positions of power to admire, emulate and model. Then some of the harmony that women bring will be appreciated and, with any luck at all, honored.

    • says

      Yes, Zig. And those of us who are older and now realize what’s going on can muzzle our fears and egos and cultivate the new culture, one that will allow women to thrive. At least, that’s my dream.

  7. says

    Fascinating post, Lynne about gender differences related to teamwork and group behaviors, both in the book and in the Time article. Like Marla, I have spent my entire 44 years of Nursing dealing predominantly with women, from entry level staff positions to top level nursing administrative positions. Women do stick together, care about one another and form lasting bonds. But I have also experienced the opposite. Many women in top leadership positions whom I have dealt with have tried to act like men and been very difficult to work “under.”- kind of overkill-callous, bullying and controlling-Interestingly unlike many male bosses I have had.

    I really like how you take it one step further to elaborate on what can be done about the differences- have a team player spirit and try to help others along the way.,despite a glass ceiling.

    Thanks for another great post, Lynne and for your link to my blog. And again, hearty congratulations on Dakota Blues!


    • says

      Thanks, Kathy. One of the authors, Susan Murphy, spent some time in hospital administration so some of her examples of behavior come right out of the nursing experience.

  8. says

    Lynne here: I just want to draw your attention to an excerpt from the latest Time Magazine in re: the female Olympic athletes, according to Teri McKeever, the very first women’s swim coach. Quoting the article, “McKeever says it’s about understanding that while male and female athletes want the same thing – to win- they use different methods to achieve victory. ‘As a coach, you want to allow the athlete to be empowered to be their best,’ she says. ‘And men and women typically go about that journey in different ways.’ For the female swimmers, making the Olympic rookies and the veterans comfortable enough to share their fears and experiences built bonds that conquered performance anxiety and led to a 14-medal tally.”
    Lynne: Which sounds to me like the same concepts touted by Murphy and Heim.

  9. says

    Fascinating post, Lynne! I haven’t read this book, but it sounds as if I should. Even though my days of working for somebody else are way over, I’m always looking for advice on relating to clients, many of whom are women. Thanks for the links to your self-publicity efforts, too!

    • says

      Yes, Debbie! The fact that you are a business woman means you have many chips – independence, wisdom, commercial success – which might be threatening to the balance. And if you’ve got clients, you’re totally working for somebody else. Lots of somebody elses!

  10. says

    Very interesting research you found, Lynn. Although most of mylife I’ve worked well with women and have many women friends, I have encounter a couple of times where I encountered problems in the workplace. And to be honest sometimes, either unconsciously or clueless, I missed signals that were telling me to watch my back. You are doing such a great job of bringing up interesting topics and inviting us to participate by sharing our comments and exploring our life. I always look forward to your what next topics.Thanks again.

  11. says

    I think there’s something to it too, but there’s also clearly an issue with how men relate to a powerful woman, such as Hillary Clinton. Why so much energy in trying to limit how far women can go in business or politics? And why do women as a group make less money than men? I doubt that other women have much influence on that one way or the other. I wonder whether the book gets into those topics.

    • says

      Madeleine, yes, at the end of this book, in the “what can YOU do to change things” section, the authors ask women to do a couple of things that stuck in my mind. One is, if you’re in a following position, be a good follower, even if it doesn’t feel right. Try to learn to be a better follower, to ensure success for the whole team. And another was, if you’re in an upper-level position as a woman, recognize that there IS a glass ceiling, reach down, and help the rest of us up. I liked both those ideas, because I have a suspicion that the corporate boys club is diggin’ it whenever we women claw each other – because while we’re busy tearing each other down, there’s less competition. And that’s why they denigrate Hillary, and foment denigration among us. (Remember how Hillary’s approval ratings went up when she cried? Anything she could do to look less powerful was a plus with women, but what a quandary!! You can’t have that in the person seeking a top world position.)

  12. says

    Hi Lynne, I read your article and I think it is great, but you should use more than one source to evaluate the qualities. The book you source is written by people who have an interest in promoting the corporate structure and agenda. They are probably making suggestions designed to benefit women in the corporate by sacrificing their individuality. (Conformity)
    In the 60’s the corporate philosophy toward employees became: We do not have a commitment to you as an individual. They expected the employee to use their skills to benefit the corporation without expecting lifetime employment and social benefits. They actually stated the new generation should not expect the corporations to have loyal obligations for employees and employees should expect to have more than one career. It was considered their duty to train on their own to move on. This led to the deterioration of benefits for the working class. High level corporate officers negotiated personal benefit packages and the rest were left to fend for packages on their own. These officers had professional mangers handling their mutual funds. The lower levels had stock based benefits without the expertise to manage retirement plans. We witnessed retired people losing their retirement because they did not have experts managing their funds.
    We are experiencing the downside of this corporate thinking today. The philosophy is global not communal and this creates the shifting economic cultures to the detriment of existing structures.
    If you read this article and ask yourself where the chip theory fits into this concept, I think you might find the chip system has benefited our communities and our children. Maybe men should think about their presumption that our system is superior.

    • says

      Jim, your always-thoughtful comments are always appreciated. I esp. like your idea that chip theory would benefit everybody if more of us adhered to it. But most male CEOs, according to this book, are more mystified than anything else. Why do women need such coddling, they ask? I see it more as making sure the whole community is healthy, as opposed to winner-take-all.
      I appreciate the link.

  13. says

    I spent 20 years in an almost ‘all woman’ profession’-from entry level to Director of Nursing positions mostly manned by women. This is where I observed first hand what ‘In the Company of Women’ authors studied-woman are tough on each other….really tough. We are also ‘circle the wagons around’ kind, too. I saw that clearly during Hillary Clinton’s run/post run. When she lost, a % went over to the other side to support Palin. Good post, Lynn, Thanks.

    • says

      Thanks for the affirmation, Marla. It’s a delicate matter, because I don’t want to seem unfriendly to my sisters, but there’s something to it. My way of looking at it is, if we know what we need, we can ask each other for it, and keep from hurting each other by accident.

  14. says

    I was JUST disagreeing with my husband the other night when he said all of us are competitive. My feeling was (and is) that women are cooperative. I don’t see the competitive gene so much – at least not to clamor for a spot in a hierarchy. We foster a sense of community.
    However – I see and have experienced the “chip” theory you mentioned. Even if it’s subliminal – it’s certainly there. Would like to read this book – even if only for the self-tests. I’ll bet it would be revealing.

    • says

      Laura, it was fascinating to me, because I didn’t want to believe it, but the authors are credible and they base it in their own extensive experience AND lots of research. Plus, it resonates. I’d be interested in knowing what you think after you read it. If you have time, would you let us know?

  15. says

    On In the Company of Women, on one hand I’d love to read this book. On the other, I feel like I could have written it.

    On Dakota Blues , congratulations! I’m sure I couldn’t have written that one. :-)


  1. […] If true, that should be an easy thing to break free of. All we have to do is ask ourselves what our motivation is for making the negative comments. Then take it up a notch: help a gal get ahead. A rising tide lifts all boats. Once we’re all eatin’ good, the sniping should stop. That’s my take, anyway. What do you think? (For Part 2 of Backstabbing Women, click here.) […]

  2. […] Whether it’s gender or age, women can change the culture, and they can start today. For more on this, read the excellent In the Company of Women – Indirect Aggression Among Women: Why We Hurt Each Other and How to Stop, by Drs. Pat Heim and Susan Murphy. They cite research showing that women hang back, out of fear that other women will punish them if they act like they’re special. The authors call this the Power Dead-Even Rule, and it’s pretty chilling. You can read a summary of the most important points here. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.