The Real Reason Women Don’t Help Other Women at Work

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As Madeleine Albright once noted, there is “a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Of course, if she’s right, that “special place” has got to be awfully crowded.

When addressing women’s underrepresentation in business, there’s an oft cited explanation: there aren’t enough women in the executive suite. If only there were more women in charge of hiring, the conventional wisdom goes, women would hire other women! We’d support our own kind, right? Like lionesses in the pack (or some other noble, loyal animal — I’m not entirely sure on that one).

But a new study shows that isn’t the case. And we should cut it out.

So-called female tokens (ouch!) in the upper levels of the business world are less inclined to help out female newcomers in their industry, according to research conducted by Olin Business School professor Michelle Duguid. She’s identified three key factors that keep women from giving other women a leg up in the business world: competitive threat, collective threat and favoritism threat.

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The first one is fairly simple. When you’re one of just a small handful of women in a working environment, the study shows, you’re more likely to be compared with other women. One of you is the “good one,” one of you is the “bad one,” so to speak. And while you’d think that’d be incentive enough to create a female community in the workplace, Duguid found that few women want to be the first to take the plunge. After years of being outnumbered in competitive business environments, women are, not entirely unsurprisingly, a little paranoid.

“Competitive threat is the fear that a highly qualified female candidate might be more qualified, competent or accepted than you are,” Duguid explained in a written release. And “female tokens” does say it all, doesn’t it?

This brings us to the second problem, collective threat. This rather menacing term can be summed up this way: You’re concerned you’re going to hire an idiot and look bad. And this really goes hand in hand with the favoritism threat, the fear that you might actually look as if you’re doing what you should be doing — hiring more women because it creates diversity in your workplace. The harsh fact remains that women are scared of appearing as though we’re looking out for one another. Call it the “I’m not a feminist, but …” phenomenon. You can be a gung-ho, pro-woman kind of gal in theory, but the label is frightening.

And research has proved this time and again. Women are more likely to suffer from stereotype threat in the workplace — and in one study, women performed less well on analytic tests when asked to think about their gender. Career expert and Forbes contributor Lisa Quast has even suggested that women are somehow hardwired from childhood to fight with one another for attention and success.

At its worst, this antiwoman pattern leads to workplace bullying. And in case you were wondering, a study three years ago showed that female workplace bullies targeted other women about 70% of the time.

So is it our fault we’re geared to compete with one another? Not really, no. But with women outnumbering men in college, let’s quit while we’re ahead.

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Amy Tennery is the managing editor of The Jane Dough, where this post originally appeared. Tennery previously edited business news site Mogulite and was a reporter for the Real Deal, a New York City real estate trade publication. Her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Slate and other publications.

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