Study Shows ‘Executive Mean Girls’ Are Keeping The Glass Ceiling Intact

According to new research, one of the major reasons we don’t see women being promoted is because women at higher levels do not support other women get ahead. Women at the top experience something called “value threat” which causes them to not want to help other women.

Michelle Duguid, PhD, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Olin Business School and author of “Female Tokens in High-prestige Work Groups: Catalysts or Inhibitors of Group Diversification?” identifies two forms of value threat that she thinks affect the behavior of female tokens in high-status work groups in the context of promotion and selection — competitive threat and collective threat.

“Competitive threat is the fear that a highly qualified female candidate might be more qualified, competent or accepted than you are,” Duguid says.“Women also might be concerned about bringing in another woman with lower qualifications, who could reinforce negative stereotypes about women and impact others’ impressions of them. This is collective threat.”

So basically women are threatened because they are worried other women will be smarter than them or will make them look stupid. Very supportive. Duguid says her research has strong implications for business and leadership in this country. “Organizational leaders really need to recognize these potential threats as they could have a significant impact on the interaction between female group members, which could ultimately affect performance,” she says. “Leaders should encourage female tokens to identify with their own demographic group, which can help them manage work relationships and develop alliances and mentoring relationships with other women.

Other studies on this subject have shown that women in workplace settings also may feel threatened by other women because researchers claim that if a woman is in a sexist environment she is far more likely to behave like an alpha female, and may even be more sexist than her male counterparts. “These women are concerned that if they are seen to be helping other women rise to the top or supporting other women in the workplace, they will be derided by the men at work, and will be seen as operating counter to the culture rather than acting like one of the boys,” according to the research.

Studies like these are very enlightening because they provide insight as to why women are pulling up the ladder behind them. The reasons behind these behaviors make sense but it doesn’t make them less disturbing. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi has said, “The glass ceiling will go away when women help other women break through that ceiling.”

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    • Lastango

      “Leaders should encourage female tokens to identify with their own demographic group, which can help them manage work relationships and develop alliances and mentoring relationships with other women.”

      From three perspectives, it sounds like it would be better if they DIDN’T identify with their demographic. First, if they started thinking of other females as people and teammates (instead of as women), they wouldn’t be viewing them as competitive or collective threats — at least not from the woman vs. woman perspective.

      Second, they won’t be shortchanging people who are not in their demographic. Anytime someone helps anotherp up the ladder because of an external characteristic like gender, race, common background, etc. there is an excellent chance they are, in the real world, discriminating against another, better-qualified candidate. If business performance is really the concern, we don’t get there by advancing lesser performers over better.

      Third, they avoid disrupting their teams by making it look like they play favorites. Teammembers will move on or pull back if they think they’re going to be hard done by because they are from another demographic. This happens with non-demographic qualities too. For instance, if two people from an elite school find themselves working together, others will (perhaps rightly) suspect these two will team up against everyone else and pull each other up the ladder. This means that Duguid’s advice that women form alliances with other women based on gender is not only counterproductive, it’s unprofessional and unfair.

      One other thing: while competitive threat seems especially sharp between women because they so often see one another as threats, it is not an uncommon problem between people of all descritptions. Lots of male bosses have marginalized another man because the boss wouldn’t look good by comparison.

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