By GRACE MASBACK (WANT Editor)
The cliché image of the “powerful” woman is cruel – she’s old aging, wears unattractive clothes, and has her hair in a bun, and is called by many a “bitch.” A lone wolf, the queen bee, the epitome of a “mean girl,” she turns to no one, especially other women, for advice. When we think of her, German Chancellor Angela Merkel or the Anna Wintour-like character in “The Devil Wears Prada” come to mind.
It is the tragic reality that women in general, but especially women in positions of power, are often characterized as overly competitive, vicious, and catty, willing to step on other women to get ahead. Some even go so far as to blame females’ alleged interest in tearing one another apart as the reason for society’s persistent gender inequality.
While male power duos are the norm — think Obama/Biden and Buffett/Gates — for women leaders, the typical perception is that they can only reach the top, and stay there, alone. The female power duos that get recognized emerge from the world of entertainment, and are typically caricatures, or ridiculous combos that are hardly aspirational.
As rumors circulate surrounding the possibility of a Hillary Clinton-Elizabeth Warren ticket, the resounding response from many pundits has been — “two strong women simply cannot work together.” End of story.
In general, media coverage has supported this claim and furthered the bitchy “queen bee” narrative, citing rationales both evolutionarily and culturally based, but in a recent New York Times op ed Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, took a stand. As Sandberg puts it, women are not any more catty, competitive, or selfish than men. Powerful females are not out to block the success of other females. They are not selfish bitches. In fact, the opposite is true.
To Sandberg, it’s a tragic that our culture perpetuates the idea that it is natural for men to be competitive, to play “rough,” and to be ruthless, while females are still expected to be soft, moral, and emotional. In a study conducted by the Academy of Management, participants were more likely to characterize fights between females as “catfights” and fights between men as “healthy debates.”
The concept of the “ultra-competitive,” powerful female who can’t work with or mentor the next generation of female leaders is nothing more than misconstrued perception brought on by years of inequality, misinformation, and bias. Women regularly help each other both professionally and personally. Another study by the Academy of Management demonstrates that women sitting on executive boards are more likely to be mentored if there are other females on the board. In Latin America, in the past 20+ years, female presidents have appointed 24% more female ministers to their cabinets than their male counterparts. If a woman has a mentor, there is a 30% chance that the mentor will be a male and a 73% chance that the mentor will be a female. Similarly, 65% of females in power said they would be willing to serve as mentors, while only 56% of males said the same. The numbers are clear.
Of course, there are some “Queen Bees” and “mean girls” out there, ruthlessly pushing others out of the way to help further their own rise to the top. And, it’s hard to blame them as women seem unwelcome in the corridors of power. Only five percent of S&P 500 CEOs are female, and some women feel pressure to protect their fragile turf against men and women. Research shows that in male-dominated settings, token women are more likely to worry about their standing and are, therefore, more reluctant to advocate for other women. In this case the Queen Bee mentality is nothing more than the natural consequence of generations of entrenched inequality.
One recent study of more than 300 executives suggests that when men promote gender diversity they received higher ratings – they were “good guys” helping to dismantle the glass ceiling. However, when female executives promote diversity, they receive significantly lower performance ratings. They are perceived as self-serving for their attempts to further the careers of other females.
There are examples of powerful females who have succeed in nearly all-male environments, not as part of a team of female leaders – women like Meg Whitman (eBay, Hewlett-Packard), Mary Barra (General Motors), Marissa Mayer (Yahoo), and even Sheryl Sandberg. In politics, there have been female governors, including Bev Perdue in North Carolina, Jan Brewer in Arizona, and Nikki Haley in South Carolina, though it’s interesting to note that they usually surrounded by nothing but male colleagues. Although there have been female duos who have run on the same ticket for governor and lieutenant governor in the last two decades, none of them were elected.
Still, that doesn’t mean that women can’t work together or don’t want to work together. All of the females mentioned have taken strides to empower women and girls, most notably Sandberg’s “Lean In” network and campaign. In fact, Sandberg’s piece is an acknowledgement of the slow but steady process to undo the perceptions surrounding the female dynamic duo. And, there are others who have have blazed the path before her. Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher were highly visible female partners at some challenging times for Great Britain. CEO Ursula Burns, and Anne Mulcahy (her predecessor) were the archetypal female duo in the 2000s, when the two women worked together to turn-around Xerox. The current female Supreme Court coalition of Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan form a powerful voting block on five justice majorities. Now, there’s the possibility that a Clinton/Warren ticket could achieve double history and help the United States live up to its the promises of equality for all on which it was founded. The path won’t ever be easy, but the fight has begun.
Despite the falsehood of the Queen Bee stereotype, it serves as an important reminder of the need for women of all ages, ranks, and social classes to work together. We need to challenge the stereotype that women are catty and can’t get along. A little bit of competition is healthy, but at the end of the day we need to have each other’s backs. We need to be ready to collaborate and share ideas, and work together, lifting each other up to break down discrimination, so that we can push boundaries, secure our rightful positions, and change the world.
Photo Credit: Philipp