Creating more gender equitable and inclusive cultures is high on the agenda for many organisations. However there is often a disconnect between existing staff development activities and efforts to create the desired cultures. More explicitly linking individual development to organisational change can make a big difference to the return on investment when developing staff. The ‘bifocal approach’ translates this ideal into reality through clear principles and program design.

Women undermining women and gender equality

In a recent women’s leadership development program Maggie Leavitt and I conducted with public sector women, a participant, following an experiential problem solving exercise commented that she would have behaved differently if men had been involved. She would have treated men more seriously and with more respect. While hard to admit, this observation opened up a discussion about how they, as women, treated their female colleagues differently to their male colleagues in the workplace.

In our sessions exploring gender in the workplace we have also heard instances of women saying, ‘all my worst bosses have been women, I’d rather work for a man’, or expressions of the resentment between women, with those who don’t have children complaining ‘why do I have to pick up the slack when they leave to pick up their child, I want a life too’, or women who say that they prefer working with male colleagues because ‘women can be so bitchy to each other’.

I experience this as a somewhat taboo topic among feminists – fearful that we’ll be blaming the women all over again, and adding fuel to gender stereotypes. But in the same way that relationships between men are an important part of the gender change jigsaw, so too are relationships between women. I think working relationships between women is an under-explored and under-researched area.

Therefore the following research caught my eye, helping me to make sense of what we’ve observed and heard from women in our work.

Women Working Together: Understanding Women’s Relationships at Work (CGO Insight # 33)

In this research Anne Litwin examines a range of positive and negative relationships between women in the workplace, and stresses that previous work has not sufficiently taken into account the gendered organization. She proposes two frameworks to aid her analysis, firstly friendship rules in a ‘man’s world’, and secondly internalised negative stereotypes and how this impacts on behaviours between members of subordinate groups.

Firstly, Litwin argues that women and men have differing friendship rules as a result of their gender socialisation. Men’s friendship rules emphasizing status and activity fit more easily with workplace norms. Women’s friendship rules, with their more egalitarian expectations are at odds with workplace norms, and are more likely to cause confusion between women about what to expect from each other.

Secondly Litwin draws on the work of Kanter and Friere to explain how subordinate groups internalise negative stereotypes, and that these can be acted out as horizontal violence between members of oppressed groups.

Using these two frameworks, Litwin examines patterns in the workplace, exploring some of the common double binds for women, for example the different expectations women have of women bosses. Women’s friendship rules can also create boundary confusion between the professional and personal, a problem for bosses who are also expected to be friends.

Litwin also coins a new term to describe positive gossip, where someone is talked about behind their back but with positive intent. She calls this transknitting – the transfer of information for the purpose of looping in or knitting information about others back into the community to maintain community. This can have positive impacts on teamwork and ‘keeping the peace’. I like the way this new term highlights positive behaviours that even women themselves describe using the gendered (often perjorative) term ‘gossip’. It is also an example of how women’s friendship behaviours can add value to the organisation through enhancing morale.

Litwin also examines shadow-side behaviours associated with subordinate groups, what might be thought of as ‘bitchy’ behaviours. These behaviours, together with an expressed sense of powerlessness and lack of agency make more sense when considered in the larger context of subordinate group behaviours.  

I think both of these frameworks could be useful for opening up discussion between women about their interactions with each other. As Litwin explains, when women lack systemic understanding of the larger forces at work they end up blaming each other and reinforcing negative strereotypes. Women need to understand the context within which they operate and how this can undermine their relationships with each other, in order to work for change, individually and collectively. I commend this article to you for reading and discussion.

Another unhelpful aspect of women's behaviour is what Catherine Fox labels as 'not me' syndrome. Yes, discrimination happens, but not to me. There are many reasons why women, and particularly senior women deny that discrimination is happening to them. Fox's opinion piece resonated with me on many fronts, however this paragraph particularly caught my eye

... the recognition of gender discrimination is also about acknowledging you are part of a group and not always judged on individual input or talent. This can be very hard to accept - particularly these days when individualism, personal agency and 'brand you' is the management mantra.

We need to assist women to both personalise their experience - yes it is happening to me, AND de-personalise their experience - it's not my fault. This is a systemic issue that we are all part of and contribute to. Switching our thinking from the usual focus on the individual, to systemic thinking where we look for patterns and the bigger picture can run against the grain, but is critical to understanding gender equality. 

Fox's article is a short piece - have a read and see what resonates for you.