Venus envy: sisters are ruining it for themselves

‘Why are women so awful to each other?’ ‘Do Men Make Better Bosses?’ ‘Nurturer or Queen Bee?’ – these are some recent headlines that suggest something is wrong with women in senior leadership and management positions.

The barriers to women’s progress in leadership and management are well known – from the ‘glass ceiling’ or ‘glass cliff’ to the ‘Mommy track’.

But how should women support each other to reach senior positions? Should women use the sisterhood and solidarity behaviour to their advantage? Or do senior women behave so badly to other women that they don’t deserve to be leaders and senior managers?

Many share the view that women in management should become sisters and engage in solidarity to compensate for the strength of men’s clubs and networks. However, the assumption that women are natural allies doesn’t always ring true.

Having often struggled in male-dominated organisations, senior female managers have reshaped their approach to survive. They do not want to take on the ‘women mantle’, which is often met with suspicion and distaste leads to a lack of strategic recognition and brings with it the ‘token feminist’ label.

Research shows women have no clear strategy for dealing with a female boss. Women tend to react to women bosses as ‘women’, expecting them to be feminine, nurturing and more forgiving than men. When female bosses fail to meet this stereotype, they are blamed for becoming ‘male’, and when they don’t champion women’s issues, they are negatively labelled ‘Queen Bees’. But do women have similar expectations of men in leadership roles?

Senior women are blamed for selling out other women, with recent media coverage portraying them as ‘bitches’, ‘gatekeepers’ and ‘abusers’. And observers are left with the question of whether women should actually be ‘allowed’ to have senior leadership roles if they behave in this way.

For example, in a recent newspaper article headlined: ‘Why are women so awful to each other?’, the female journalist wrote: “I can honestly say the cruellest characters I have met have been women bosses. The reason is simple. Some women, especially insecure and untalented ones, feel threatened by other women, so attempt to destroy them.”

This type of reporting, often by women, falls into the gender trap, where senior women are seen as unnatural and out of place.

There is no male equivalent of the Queen Bee. ‘Bad behaviour’ from men in senior roles is often expected, accepted or ignored – reinforcing the assumed rightful place of men as bosses, regardless of behaviours. Men who do not support each other in the career stakes are not blamed by other men, nor are men in senior management expected to support women in management or ‘blamed’ when they fail to do so. So why are there such high expectations of women?

These debates are particularly important in human resources management (HRM), which is a female-dominated profession, where relationships between women are ripe for further research, and which flips to a male-dominated profession at senior strategic level.

HRM roles can still conjure up the feminine – the nurturer, the carer and the industry social worker role. So those women who do achieve senior status may quickly confront the contradictions learning to fit into a heroic masculine paradigm of modern executive culture, no longer being a woman and becoming Queen Bee or leading on the ‘women mantle’ and becoming the ‘token feminist’ without strategic reward. This is a central dilemma. So can senior women choose to play a different game?

Rather than recommending sisterhood, while at the same time blaming women for being more male than men, we should challenge our assumptions and the use of solidarity behaviour and the Queen Bee tag to prevent continued derogatory labelling.

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