What is Behind the (Far Too Common) Failure of Women to Help Other Women in the Workplace and What Can Be Done About It?

According to Madeline Albright, “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” But why wouldn’t women help one another at every opportunity? Shouldn’t it be easy enough for women to help one another whenever possible, particularly in the workplace? It turns out that it isn’t all that simple and women don’t always naturally help one another in the workplace as it might be expected. So, what’s going on here?

There are certain workplace circumstances that don’t necessarily bring out the best in all women or promote the helping behavior other women might expect. In fact, some workplace environments stimulate behaviors that disadvantage some or all women. In workplace situations that are heavily male dominated where women are a very small minority, some women, particularly those who are insecure in their positions, may feel that newcomers pose a competitive threat. In a heavily male dominated workplace with a culture that clearly doesn’t value men and women equally, this may be a very valid concern. Women who question their own value and competence may worry that other women will be more qualified, more competent, or better accepted. Under these circumstances, women in the workplace may not provide the support and help that might be expected or needed. Women may also distance themselves from other women to avoid being marginalized as a result of gender stereotyping or the appearance of favoritism. Senior women may be unwilling to mentor junior women because of the risk to their own status, a“value threat”, particularly in male-dominated organizations with an environment or culture that is not favorable for women.

Though research on the effects of being supervised by women has produced conflicting results, a cross-sectional sample of 839 men and 670 women (Maume 2011) provided evidence that female supervisors provide more support and promotion opportunities to their male subordinates, disadvantaging their female subordinates. According to research on Queen Bee behavior published by Derks, et al. in 2011, women with low gender identification are induced to advance their careers in gender biased organizations by distancing themselves from other women and opposing rather than supporting the advancement of female subordinates. These women emphasize their masculine characteristics, deny the existence of gender bias, and express gender-stereotypical views of other women, leading them to restrict the career opportunities of their female subordinates.

When female employees’ expectations for support, assistance, and advocacy from other women (which can sometimes be inflated and unrealistic) aren’t met, they are likely to feel particularly betrayed and disappointed and may engage in negative behaviors like denigrating their supervisors or other higher level women. These frustrated female employees are also more likely to exit the organization, taking their potential contributions and value elsewhere. These negative behaviors may also contribute to ongoing gender stereotyping in male dominated organizations, further limiting opportunities for women in the places that may benefit most from diversifying their workforce.

While gaining a better understanding of some of the reasons women fail to help other women in the workplace is useful, it’s much more important to find solutions that will be effective and will allow all women in the workplace to achieve to their full potential and experience as much job satisfaction and career optimism as any other employee.

Maume, D. J. (2011). Meet the new boss…same as the old boss? Female supervisors and subordinate career prospects. Social Science Research, 40 (1), 287–298.
Derks, B., Ellemers, N., van Laar, C., & de Groot, K. (2011). Do sexist organizational cultures create the queen bee? British Journal of Social Psychology, 50 (3), 519–535.
Derks, B., van Laar, C.,Ellemers, N., & de Groot, K. (2011) Gender-bias primes elicit queen bee responses among senior policewomen. Psychological Science, online 26 August 2011.

Join us on March 25 to explore ways to eliminate barriers like gender bias and create workplace cultures that enable women to experience the career success and satisfaction they seek, freeing them to help others, including other women, as they achieve their own goals. Please register online and encourage others who would enjoy the discussion to attend as well. All are welcome.

Please note: This is a “brown bag” event and it is recommended that participants bring their lunch to eat during the roundtable. We’ll also have beverages and popcorn or other snacks to share.

About the Roundtable: The Women’s Leadership Roundtable is a facilitated open forum for women, as leaders of themselves and others, to discuss relevant issues, build community and network, collaborate with, learn from, and support one another. It provides an opportunity for women to be heard, share their experiences, engage in thought-provoking discussion, and to generate ideas and growth together. The roundtable is an ongoing event, open to the public, held on the last Friday of every other month from January through September in a Denver area location. You are encouraged to attend as frequently as possible and bring your ideas, issues, and interests to the discussion. There is a $10 charge for the roundtable, paid in advance when registering online, and a $12 charge when paid at the door. For additional information, contact Karen McGee at 303-503-9681.



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