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Powerful Women Are Not Helping Other Women, Says Study

Vivia Chen

May 10, 2012

Poster_The_WomenRemember Madeleine Albright's famous words: "There's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women"? Well, hell must be filling up with some very high-powered women these days.

A new study from Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis finds that women executives are not helping other women get to the top. In fact, they tend to see other women as competitors, and as a result, they are thwarting women's progress.

 It's a disturbing study because I thought that catfight chapter was over—or was at least winding down. But I'm wrong.

Michelle Duguid, the study's author, writes that where there are very few female members in a "high-status work group," they tend to feel insecure about their status as "valued" group members. She describes two types of threat that women in power feel about other women: 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,” said Duguid to Washington University's press office. “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.”

Call it what you will, but it seems that women in power still feel that they are in a tenuous position. Apparently, women don't feel there's enough room in the power structure to accommodate more than a few (maybe one) women at any time. One explanation for this, according to a study by Netherland's Leiden University, is that a woman working in a sexist environment "is far more likely to behave like an alpha female, and may even be more sexist than her male counterparts," reports The Grindstone.

Duguid's description of women's hostility to other women reminds me of those Joan Crawford movies where women were always fighting each other for male attention. It also brings back my own experiences as a first-year associate in the mid-eighties, when I worked under an icy female associate. I didn't feel she wanted me to do well—and when I flubbed the first assignment, she seemed quite pleased, as if my mistake elevated her status in the eyes of our male boss.

But that was a long time ago. There are a lot more women in law—and most law firms have more than a handful of women partners now. And though I've questioned the efficacy of women's initiatives in elevating women, I do think they at least help promote esprit de corps.

So I'd like to believe that Duguid's research isn't reflective of what's going on in the legal world. Am I wrong?


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Although the study makes generalities, it makes some very valid points. I have worked for major corporations and small companies alike and, in my experience, have found women to be extremely protectionist of their position. I viewed their hiring of men as being two-folded: (1) a subconscious feeling of superiority; (2) protecting themselves from other women who threaten their position. No matter the reason, it's a sad day when women cat fight - be it active or passively. This is a true impediment to gender progression. When I was in management I promoted my employees based on performance. I was confident in my role and my work therefore I never felt threatened by the gender factor. Perhaps we haven't come as far as we thought...

This is simply not true across the board, i.e., this may be true of many women, but there are serious exceptions to the rule that make certain companies and law firms better places to be and others worse. Men, of course, also compete, steal one another's clients, and walk out the door (think Dewey, Heller, Brobeck) when it appears they can make $100K more at firm B than they are at firm A even when they're making $1 million/year. I've been mentored and sponsored by men and by women and I've been stabbed in the back by both as well.

I have worked for both men and women (in large and small office environments). With a few outstanding exceptions, I would rather work for men than women.

Women who have gotten into powerful positions in law offices are often of the age where they had to chose between a career and family. Many of these women resent those of us who have a work/life balance that reflects choices different than their own. They often give off the impression that they believe younger women are less dedicated, and we should not have it all. We did not give up what they did, and thus do not deserve the work sucess they enjoy.

Many men in positions of power treat young female attorneys the way they want their daughters or granddaughters treated in the workplace. The assignments given by male partners are often more meaningful and challenging than those given by their female counterparts.

Duh. Happened to me at BigLaw and inhouse at Fortune 50. All you need to do is talk to a couple of fiftysomethings who have been around a few minutes and you will find this over and over. My word to young women lawyers in a big place: watch your back for your own kind. HOWEVER, if you are talking about lateral networking, use your own. Totally different game.

When I was in BigLaw, this was the real reason that I tried to avoid women's mentoring groups: it always seemed to me that the female partners viewed participation as a sign of weakness.

I'm not sure what happens in BigLaw but in the solo/small firm world this it is the exact opposite. Powerful women help other women all the time. If it's the 'ladder' we are talking about within one environment, maybe this has some validity...but would it be any different regardless the sex? I think it's the model, not the gender. This has been my experience.

Do the study's conclusions reflect a sexist environment? Or do they reflect the fact that most women high up in the power structure are in such a tenuous position that they have no business being there in the first place.

The track record of female CEOs is miserable, and another high-powered female exec, Ina Drew of JPMorgan Chase, just crashed and burned over the weekend.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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