The Broken Sisterhood of Business

By Jules Lewis Gibson, founder of GRAVITAS

There is a reason the Old Boys Club is alive and well, it works—really well. Let’s be honest: Men mentor, sponsor and promote each other in ways women have yet to master. Granted, the men have had thousands of years to perfect their system, while women are fairly new to the professional game. Nevertheless, for us to truly level the playing field, women must recognize, acknowledge and move beyond our innate competitive nature, which is holding us all back.

There is no denying that as a whole, women are competitive with each other on a different level than men. To be fair, some of our competitive nature is coded into our DNA as a survival instinct. For several millenniums, women have had to rely on a strong man to provide for and protect her and her children. Many women around the world, including in the U.S., still live in relative captivity, entrapped by socio-economic conditions. Tragically, girls in some cultures are refused an education and even sold into sex slavery by their own family.

It is still a relatively new phenomenon that women even have the right to vote and inherit property, much less enjoy the opportunity to work outside the home and craft a life on our own terms. It is only natural that even successful, independent women have to fight the instinct to look at other women as rivals and potential threats. Aside from our inherent natures, our culture perpetuates the competition through media, movies, even infiltrating the fairy tales we read to our children.

Exacerbating the problem, when women do band together, men fight to preserve their control over their patriarchal system by undermining their attempts to organize and collaborate. Women who became too powerful in the villages of early Colonial America were accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. Suffrage meetings were regularly broken up by men who feared what would happen if women secured the right to vote.  The atrocities continue today around the globe with stonings, rape, murder and genital mutilation as men seek to keep women under their control.

From a historical perspective, the strides women in America have made over the past 50 years are nothing short of revolutionary. Like the French storming the Bastille, they have pushed their way up the ominous corporate ladder and wagered their survival to create empires from their kitchens. Women fought for equality and marched in the streets for rights that many girls today take for granted. More women are comfortably tucked in C-suites than ever before, and yet there are still so few women at the top, it is sobering.

Sheryl Sandberg, noting the lack of female colleagues at the board table, championed the fight, urging women to Lean In to their careers in the formative years. She encouraged us to stand up for ourselves, advocate for our promotions and strive for greatness. Her rallying cry incited a new passion in women of her generation that had become largely complacent to the new normal for women in business. She was, in fact, one of my inspirations to create GRAVITAS, to give women an authentic voice in the sound bite, airbrushed, façade of success that pervades media today.

While most women are comfortable waving the flag of liberation, they refrain from giving voice to the fact that all is not well in the Girls Club. As I prepared my research for this article, prominent women were not willing to go on record to acknowledge that we have a problem. While we all know the mean girls have grown up and some still troll the hallways of business, few women want to publicly discuss our gender-centric competitive nature.

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It should be no surprise, in our filtered social media reality, that women resist discussing the fact that cliques and catty comparisons still thrive far beyond puberty. Women are proving to be astute brand managers as they craft a life worth envy through their social media lens. This race to perfection is sadly making it more difficult than ever for some women to show the cracks in their real storyline.

Regardless if we discuss it, women—who undeniably build stronger, more in-depth friendships with other women than men do with each other—do not translate that bond of sisterhood into our professional lives as successfully. The truth is, if we are ever going to break the glass ceiling once and for all, we must take responsibility for lifting each other up and tear it down together.

The Queen Bee

In 1974, University of Michigan researchers Graham Staines, Toby Epstein Jayaratne and Carol Tavris published an article in Psychology Today coining the term the “Queen Bee Syndrome.” They presented their findings based on more than 20,000 survey responses from Psychology Today and Redbook. Their research illustrated a trend where women who achieved success in male-dominated office environments were often opposed to the rise of other women. Unfortunately, over 40 years later, Queen Bees still covet their throne.

In today’s over stimulated society, baby bees begin their training as early as grammar school. By middle school and high school the Queen Bee Syndrome is rampant. Vicious bullying often spearheaded by one individual is the ugly result of adolescent teens vying for popularity and inclusion in cliques. While most women mature beyond this destructive behavior, some do not. As these young Queen Bees head into the workforce, they hone their skills of manipulation using them as tools to further their careers. As they succeed to positions of power, rather than nurture young female talent, these Queen Bees become obsessed with maintaining their authority. By exploiting female vulnerabilities, they can effectively and viciously tear down a coworker’s reputation and self-esteem with tactics men might not even notice. According to a 2011 study by the American Management Association, 95% of the 1,000 working women surveyed believed they were undermined by another woman at some point in their career.

Some women still feel there is still only one seat at the board table available to a woman. By preventing the advancement of other women up the ranks, a Queen Bee can reduce the number of competitors, thereby easing her ascension up the career ladder. Women who have overcome tremendous obstacles to achieve top ranking positions are not eager to lose their alpha female dominance. To be fair, the qualities that propelled these women to the top are undoubtedly not their kind hearts and generous natures. It seems unjust to slap a double standard on these women by expecting them to mother young protégées, when it’s their killer instincts that secured their seat at the big table. It is no doubt a complicated issue that we must address. It would be beneficial for all of us if we could break the Queen Bee cycle. It doesn’t have to be as hard for the next generation of women leaders as it was for them.

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Despite challenges, young women today are achieving success in greater numbers than ever before. Since the early 1990s, women began to outpace men in college degrees. In 2012 women earned 57% of all degrees conferred that year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Women also earned a majority of master’s degrees and doctoral degrees in the 2011-12 academic year: 60% of all master’s degrees compared with 40% for men, and 51% of PhDs being awarded to women compared to 49% to men.

While the current educational statistics are impressive, advancing to top ranking positions and securing equal pay still remain hurdles for women. One step in improving those realities would be for Queen Bees to accept that inclusive and collaborative relationships with younger women could in fact improve the Queen Bee’s standing by showing her ability to evolve and stay relevant in a rapidly changing world. A hand of guidance today could also someday secure her survival down the road. It’s more important than ever for the female leaders to reach out to the next generation and pull them up.

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Mentorship

Companies today recognize the need to assist women and interconnect them better. The largest companies in the world are awash with mentoring programs aimed at women in particular, to help the best and brightest reach the top. Unfortunately, statistics show that mentoring benefits men much more than women. Part of the issue is the shallow pool of female leaders, as well as the actions, or lack thereof, taken by chosen mentors on behalf of their protégées.

One of the major challenges with mentorship is the lack of females in top senior level positions. In addition to the smaller numbers of female leaders, women who hold those coveted positions are often starved for time, even if they have the desire to pay it forward to younger colleagues. Between demanding work schedules and responsibilities at home, women on the top of the corporate chain blame lack of time as the main obstacle to mentorship.

Until female leaders prioritize mentoring as a necessity in their careers, this roadblock will persist. Men appear to negotiate this challenge with much more ease than women. Missing a family dinner to attend a steak dinner with colleagues is rarely an issue for men. They prioritize their relationships in business as an intricate element of job security and advancement. Making time for social interaction with colleagues is formally built into their schedule.

Another formidable problem with female mentors is the lack of sponsorship that is offered. There is a significant difference between mentoring and sponsoring, similar to the difference between talking and doing. While mentoring is generally more about guidance, sponsoring is more action-based. Studies show that the fundamental difference between the way women and men interact with their protégées is that men take a more active role in the advancement of their careers by advocating their protégées to other high level executives, suggesting them for projects that would gain them higher visibility or even recommending them directly for advanced positions. Women tend to offer guidance and opinions, but outright solicitation for another woman’s advancement is not so forthcoming.

Networking vs 
Relationship Building

Many careers and deals are made nowhere near the office, but on the golf course, the fishing trip, hunting trip, the steak house, even at the strip club. Unfortunately, women are typically excluded from these opportunites to build relationships with colleagues. The fact is that men integrate social situations into their careers much more effectively than women. Recently, at one of our GRAVITAS Dinner Parties hosted by Rococo’s Steakhouse in St. Petersburg, I invited five awesome ladies to join us for dinner. While enjoying our fabulous dinner, we laughed and connected with each other on a meaningful personal level, despite our differences in age, backgrounds and industries. We discussed how each woman had debated whether she could set aside a Tuesday evening away from home to attend. One guest lamented that she had hesitated at first, feeling guilty about leaving her husband and children to fend for themselves. Meanwhile, in the adjacent three ballrooms were about 50 men having a grand time at their “business dinner.” We speculated on how long most of them considered the extra burden they would be putting on their wives by skipping family time. We agreed that most probably never gave it the slightest consideration.

Recognizing the need to expand their influence, women often seek out opportunities to network. Charity luncheons, meetups and business groups offer a plethora of occasions to meet prospective clients or important colleagues. The challenge with many of those events is that women still look at it as business. They go with an objective to get as many business cards as possible or to shake hands with valuable contacts. We tend to have that “I’m on a mission” mentality. While that tactic can work to a degree, what is lacking is relationship building. Rather than gather a dozen cards, it would be more beneficial to have a real conversation with one person. Invite her to lunch. Spend an hour truly getting to know her.

According to Jessica Rivelli, founder of Working Women of Tampa Bay, “Networking is a two-way street. Building meaningful professional relationships is a constant process of giving and receiving. It’s a pay-it-forward philosophy that requires time and effort. If you want to make true connections, it’s never just about getting what you want. It’s about making sure you provide value to others so they achieve their goals and dreams.”

When women nurture and promote each other in business the way we do in our personal lives with our girlfriends, the world will change. Through business and government we will be a FORCE to be reckoned with—and men know it. Some men dismiss women as inferior or unstable, but deep down they know the power behind the maternal spirit.

 

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Women are undeniably the architects of the family. When we learn to translate the skills we utilize to bond families and communities, that will be the day we level the playing field ourselves. When we need something, we should think like a man asking ourselves, “Do I know a woman who does that?” When we master that line of thinking, glass ceilings will be a thing of the past.

Learning to connect on a professional level has far-reaching implications more crucial than adding a few more girls to the executive roster. Personally, I believe the only way to fundamentally change the world is through women. When we reach beyond race, religion and culture to unite, that is when we will truly see change on a global scale.Screenshot 2017-01-16 13.04.08

If only we could all for just a moment imagine a woman when we first meet her as a little girl on the playground—her pigtails flapping around her tiny head and a wide, beaming smile inviting us to share a twirl around the merry-go-round. Imagine her as your best friend, your sister, your daughter, your mother or grandmother. Imagine her as YOU!

 

By Jules Lewis Gibson, founder and Editor In Chief of GRAVITASJules Lewis Gibson

Read more articles by Jules


Article printed in our Summer 2015 issue of Gravitas Magazine

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