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Don’t underestimate the power of women connecting and supporting each other at work. As my experiences from being a rookie accountant to a managing director at an investment bank have taught me, conversations between women have massive benefits for the individual and the organization. When I graduated college in the 1970s, I believed that women would quickly achieve parity at all levels of professional life now that we had “arrived” — I viewed the lack of women at the top as more of a “pipeline” problem, not a cultural one. But the support I expected to find from female colleagues — the feeling of sisterhood in this mission — rarely survived first contact within the workplace.
When I was a first-year accountant at a Big Eight firm (now the Big Four), I kept asking the only woman senior to me to go to lunch, until finally she told me, “Look, there’s only room for one female partner here. You and I are not going to be friends.” Unfortunately, she was acting rationally. Senior-level women who champion younger women even today are more likely to get negative performance reviews, according to a 2016 study in The Academy of Management Journal.
My brusque colleague’s behavior has a (misogynistic) academic name: the “Queen Bee” phenomenon. Some senior-level women distance themselves from junior women, perhaps to be more accepted by their male peers. As a study published in The Leadership Quarterly concludes, this is a response to inequality at the top, not the cause. Trying to separate oneself from a marginalized group is, sadly, a strategy that’s frequently employed. It’s easy to believe that there’s limited space for people who look like you at the top when you can see it with your own eyes.
By contrast, men are 46% more likely to have a higher-ranking advocate in the office, according to economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett. This makes an increasing difference in representation as you go up the org chart. According to a 2016 McKinsey report, Women in the Workplace, white men make up 36% of entry-level corporate jobs, and white women make up 31%. But at the very first rung above that, those numbers change to 47% for white men and 26% for white women — a 16% drop. For women of color, the drop from 17% to 11% is a plunge of 35%. People tend to think that whatever conditions exist now are “normal.” Maybe this (charitably) explains men’s blind spots: at companies where only one in ten senior leaders are women, says McKinsey, nearly 50% of men felt women were “well represented” in leadership.
Worse than being snubbed by the woman above me was the lack of communication between women at my level. Of the 50 auditors in my class, five were women. All of us were on different client teams. At the end of my first year, I was shocked and surprised to learn that all four of the other women had quit or been fired — shocked at the outcome, and surprised because we hadn’t talked amongst ourselves enough to understand what was happening. During that year, I’d had difficult experiences with men criticizing me, commenting on my looks, or flatly saying I didn’t deserve to work there — but I had no idea that the other women were having similar challenges. We expected our performance to be judged as objectively as our clients’ books, and we didn’t realize the need to band together until it was too late. Each of us had dealt with those challenges individually, and obviously not all successfully.
I resolved not to let either of those scenarios happen again; I wanted to be aware of what was going on with the women I worked with. As I advanced in my career, I hosted women-only lunches and created open channels of communication. I made it a point to reach out to each woman who joined the firm with an open door policy, sharing advice and my personal experiences, including how to say no to doing traditionally gendered (and uncompensated) tasks like getting coffee or taking care of the office environment. To personal assistants, who might find some of those tasks unavoidable, I emphasized that they could talk to me about any issues in the workplace, that their roles were critical, and that they should be treated with respect. The lunches were essential, providing a dedicated space to share challenges and successes. Coming together as a group made people realize that their problems weren’t just specific to them, but in fact were collective obstacles. All of this vastly improved the flow of information, and relieved tension and anxiety. It reassured us that though our jobs were challenging, we were not alone. In doing so, I hope it lowered the attrition rate of women working at my company — rates that are, across all corporate jobs, stubbornly higher for women than men, especially women of color.
My own daughter has arrived to a workplace that has not changed nearly as much as I had hoped — although 40% of Big Four accounting firm employees are women, they make up only 19% of audit partners. Only one in five C-suite members is a woman, and they are still less likely than their male peers to report that there are equal opportunities for advancement.
So, what are women in the workplace to do, when research shows that we’re penalized for trying to lift each other up?