Are Women Prejudiced Against One Another in the Workplace?

women-fighting-at-work-637x355I have been fortunate enough to get to this point in my career without thinking very much about gender disparities that exist in the workplace. I suppose it has been a combination of being young and naive starting out, and being a part of diverse workplaces where women were well represented at all levels of management.   At one of my prior roles, all 3 levels of management above me were women, right up to the CEO. So I suppose that I have had it easy, and that this sort of ignorant enjoyment of equality is the reason that some women, particularly younger women, denounce feminism.

But I read and hear all the time that gender inequality still exists. This is seen when it comes to the differences in pay between the sexes, the Australian Government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) publishing that in May 2013, the average Australian woman earned $266.20 per week less than the average Australian man. The WGEA go on to attribute this gap to the following factors: 

  1. women and men working in different industries. Historically, work done in female-dominated industries has been undervalued compared to male-dominated industries
  2. women and men working in different types of jobs within industries
  3. a lack of senior part-time or flexible roles
  4. differences in ‘human capital’ such as education, work experience, seniority
  5. discrimination or bias, whether conscious or unconscious.

As I said, I have not experienced any of the above firsthand. However, over countless coffee catch ups with female colleagues and Friday night drinks with friends from my practical legal training course, I have picked up on an interesting trend.

There are many women who prefer to work with, and particularly report to, men.
I will be honest and admit that in my current organisation, I also felt this way. These are things that I have heard said about other female colleagues; ‘She takes things personally‘, ‘She doesn’t like to be embarrassed so don’t cross her‘, and ‘She’s the jealous type‘. When I clash with a female colleague, sometimes there is a genuine reason such as a perception that they are being disorganised or disinterested to the task at hand. Other times, I have thought something along the lines of ‘Oh I’d rather be dealing with a man, at least they are straightforward and will tell it to you like it is‘. When I clash with a man, I am more likely to believe it is for a work related reason and that it is just business.

So let’s reflect on this. Both genders can receive criticism for performance related traits such as incompetence or tardiness. But why is it, that a woman is also more likely to be described negatively based on her emotional state? Jealousy, fickleness, feeling threatened by a younger woman. I have never heard a man being described any of these things in the workplace. A woman is more likely to be labelled ‘bossy’ for the same behaviour that would brand a man a ‘micro-manager’. I have definitely never heard of a man sleeping his way up the corporate ladder. Are we, as women, actually behaving in the way that we are painted, or are we both the victims and the perpetrators of gender bias?

In Sheryl Sandberg’s novel, ‘Lean In’, she dedicates an entire chapter to how women are perceived in the workplace. She talks about the Heidi/Howard study where an experiment was conducted using a real business case study of a successful female entrepreneur.  Half the students were given the business case study to read in its true form, whilst the other half were given the case study with one minor change, the name Heidi was changed to Howard. When the students were polled, it emerged that they considered Howard the appealing colleague, whilst they perceived Heidi to be ‘selfish’ and ‘not the type of person you would want to hire or work for’.

So I have to ask myself, am I prejudicing other women in my workplace as soon as it appears that we will not get along? Are they prejudiced against me? And therefore, in turn, when we do interact, are we treating one another in the manner in which we are stereotyped? Are we being difficult and distrusting of one another? I suppose it’s the classic chicken and egg dilemma. Are women actually more likely to be difficult to work with and for, and would this be the case if there was no gender bias?

I’m making an effort to sanity check my appraisals of others by asking myself, ‘How would I react if a man behaved that way in that situation?’ or ‘Have you actually seen her behave that way, or is this just a reputation borne out of misguided perception?’. When I perceive that I’m being prejudiced against by, for example, an older or younger woman, maybe it’s actually just my own (and society’s) gender bias talking. So I guess I’ll finish with the obvious, let’s just get on with the job and give each other the benefit of the doubt.

That Career Girl

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7 comments

  1. This is an interesting post. As a girl’s girl, I have always generally preferred female supervisors and (luckily) I have always had great experiences with them so far. All of the women I have worked for (as an intern–since I’m only 22 and still in school, so have never held a ‘real’ job) have been supportive, helpful, friendly, and have always taken me “under their wing.”

    However, I’ve noticed exactly what your post notes–that a lot of other women prefer working for men. Most of my friends think that female supervisors/bosses tend to be overly harsh, “bitchy” and controlling when compared to their male counterparts.

    I’m not sure why that is, but I wonder if sometimes if one bad experience is the root of these perceptions. Men are the norm in management so one bad male boss does not equal all male bosses being bad… on the other hand, one bad female manager tends to reflect upon all female managers (you see this kind of mentality with minorities often too–the one bad apple reflects on the entire group).

    It’s because at the end of the day, someone might have 10 male bosses, 3 of which were bad, and so, the positive outweighs the negative and no stereotype is formed. On the other hand, they might have had only 1 female boss, who happened to be bad, but because there’s such limited experience with female bosses, that one experiences colors their entire perception of women in management.

    http://www.thinktravelcelebrate.wordpress.com

  2. Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a thought provoking comment. Your point absolutely makes sense and is food for thought. It really is such a fascinating topic and us 20 somethings should continue to provide anecdotes and encourage discussion (although I feel like I almost need a degree in psychology and sociology to be considered about it!).

  3. I am definitely one of those women who prefers to particularly report to men!

    I had only a brief period reporting to a female boss – and I have to say I don’t even want to think about those moments as they are so depressing.

    I found that, compared to my male bosses, this female boss tend to think that every task is of the same priority and that drove me crazy! I sometimes wonder if she acted that way under the pressure to prove that female managers can perform as well as their male counterparts (she’s the only female manager in our office).

    On the other hand, my other half has worked only with female bosses and never once make a gender-biased complaint about his bosses. And that makes me rethink the generalizations of female bosses I have heard before.

    1. Hopefully you end up working with a female who is great to even out your experience. You raise a good point about female managers trying to prove they can perform as well as male counterparts, I definitely think this mentality can come into play.

  4. I have a few personal observations based on my 16-year career in a male dominated industry. First of all, I have had two female bosses – one fabulous, one horrible. I have had many male bosses and about one third were awful, most were mediocre and only about 10% were great. Being a great boss has much more to do with leadership then gender. However, in my personal experience the same behaviour in men and women is often interpreted differently. For example, a married man with children is seen as stable and reliabel A married woman with children is seen as unfocused. Both men and women often look for evidence to support their own gender stereotypes. Here’s some advice for the 20 somethings:

    1. Men still rule. It sucks, but the workplace organizational design (hierarchy) favours men. Observe and learn to work around it.
    2. As women we are not in the ‘club’, so we have less exposure to decision makers and we generally are promoted for performance that is too good to ignore instead of for our potential like men. Go ahead and break the ‘rules’…you have nothing to lose, you were never in the ‘club’ anyway.
    3. There are women out there who want to help you. I could write a book on the overt and covert discrimination I or other women I know have been subject too. As we move up the chain we change what we can and we are here to help you navigate the obstacles that still exist.

    Let’s stick together ladies and we can make the workplace better for women and men.

    1. Thank you so much for your reply, I love it when people take the time out to provide such thought provoking commentary. Your comment about men being hired for their potential and women being hired for their achievements really resonates with me. When I couple this with the fact that women usually must deem themselves to meet most selection criteria points before they apply for a role, whereas men are more likely to disregard the shortcomings and apply anyway, it’s no wonder that the representation of women begins waning at management level. This is not even considering all of the other social and psychological factors that come in to play. So yes I agree, we should break the rules. I have found it really helpful learning about gender behaviour in the workplace so I can be mindful of which rules to break 😉

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