Happy Galentine’s Day – it’s time to show some love to the women in the workplace
This Valentine’s Day, we explore the Queen Bee syndrome, evolutionary trust and how we just might be keeping some women out of the in-crowd…

During our travels over the last few months, we’ve noticed a recurrent theme coming up in our conversations; women being mean to other women in the workplace. It’s something we’ve both witnessed and been subjected to in our careers, which leaves us posing a delicate question: have we done it too? The fact is, whether unwittingly or unwillingly, the answer is a rather shamefaced – hand on Valentine’s Day heart – probably yes.

So what’s going on here? Why is it, that when we recently ran focus groups with young women, did they pretty much – overwhelmingly – say they’d rather work for a man than a woman because, well, ‘women were bitchy’?

There’s lot written about this subject; the ‘Queen Bee’ syndrome was first coined in the 1970s, referring to research done at the University of Michigan. The research commented on the behaviour of senior women in organisations thwarting the careers of other women. A 2010 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute showed that female bullies directed their hostilities towards other women 80% of the time, and a 2011 study from the American Management Association revealed that 95% of women had been undermined by another woman at some point in their careers. Conversely, Columbia University published research in 2015 claiming that the Queen Bee syndrome is a myth. Having studied top management teams at 1,500 companies, over 20 years, they concluded that female CEOs were more likely to appoint another woman. However, with only one woman at executive level the likelihood of another being appointed was only 50%. Sounds like ‘diversity job done’ syndrome.

There’s a dangerous stereotype, though, that we need to address; this Devil Wears Prada character – bitchy, ruthless, cold and mean. Surely if that character had been a man we’d just describe him as tough? Is there a double standard? Are women judged more harshly than men? There are plenty of examples of that being the case (Hillary Clinton being one). Are women expected to be nicer, and hence when they don’t meet that expectation, they’re cast as Cruella De Ville?

Insights from the world of psychology show that warmth and competence make up 90% of the variance of how we judge others. I’ve never worked for an organisation where you’re explicitly measured on warmth; it’s much more important that you’re competent. Yet trust, from an evolutionary point of view, is more important. Our ability to assess someone’s trustworthiness kept us alive. How we feel about someone emotionally stays with us (he/she was a useless boss but lovely, vs. he/she was very competent but tough / a bitch). Everyone has observed or experienced the conflict involved with managing people and having to make ‘tough’ decisions. The outcomes that organisations value and are able to measure are traditionally more “male” qualities and they translate into behaviours that are deemed acceptable, competitive, ruthless, decisive etc. People, in my experience, are rarely lauded or rewarded for being empathetic or collaborative.

Psychologists also report that intra-sexual competition is different in men and women. For both, there are two primary forms: self-promotion and competitor derogation, but they manifest in different ways. For men, it’s about physical ability and social status and for women, youth and physical attractiveness (in both cases, these are qualities that are perceived as valued by the opposite sex). So how does this play out? For women, it comes as criticism of the age, character or appearance of their rivals. Sound familiar? If we haven’t done it (or won’t admit it), then we’ve sure as hell witnessed it.

The way that this competitiveness is characterised is also different in women. Firstly, it’s usually carefully veiled and tends to come as a verbal, over physical expression, often as part of a group. Secondly, if a woman is high status or very attractive, she may feel less need for help and protection from other women and become less motivated to invest in others. Thirdly, often women guard against potential competitors by means of social exclusion. Again, sadly I’m sure we all recognise this type of behaviour. Ever felt out of the in-crowd at work?

It seems that these behaviours can start young. I watched Channel 4’s ‘The Secret Lives of 5-Year Olds’ recently, where they tested differences in gender around risk taking, rule breaking and empathy. Although not a large sample, it confirmed the academics’ theories; boys are more likely to take a risk and break the rules, girls show more empathy. So what happens in the workplace? In order for women to compete in the game, do we lose the empathy? Do women see the rules of the game at work as being set and therefore don’t want to take the risk of behaving differently by breaking that rule?

So our Valentine’s message is this: show some love to the women you work with. Are you judging others fairly? What can you do to bring more equality to the way you behave? Are we helping create or perpetuating in-groups and out-groups? Are we competing, when collaborating would create a better outcome? We need to call out this behaviour – whether our own, or others. Women need all the support they can get, from men and other women. Because call us old romantics, but we think more equality and more empathy will make the workplace better for everyone.