How women in leadership fail women in the workplace & how they can do better [with real life stories]

“I’ve never had a good experience with a female boss,” I’d rather have a male boss than a female boss,” “women managers can be so mean,” “my worst experiences have been with women managers.” How many times have you heard these words uttered by women in your circle? In our case, too many! As painful as it is for us to admit it, especially as champions for women, it’s a sad and jarring reality that with so few of us in managerial and executive positions, the experiences that many women encounter with women leaders are negative. In this UCLA study of 60,000 people, women (including women managers) were more likely to prefer a male boss than a woman.

Like most of you, we’ve often wondered how women in leadership positions fail so many of us in the workplace and how they can do better. We set out to answer these questions by reflecting on our own experiences and interviewing women about their encounters with women in leadership positions. Their stories were intriguing and eye opening.

Here are 11 ways women in leadership fail women in the workplace and how they can do better. Plus, check out some real life stories of the women who shared their experiences with us at the end of this blog post. We have changed their names to maintain their privacy.

How women leaders fail women 

1. View other women as competition

Based on their own insecurities, women see other women not as allies but as obstacles to their success. We hypothesize that because there are so few women that make it to the top, they tend to feel threatened by other women. Basically, they may be afraid that they will take their place.

2. Reduce their visibility

They exclude women from important projects and conversations. Again, this behavior may be based on their own insecurities and fear of being replaced.

3. Throw women under the bus so they can look better to their bosses

In an effort to advance their own agenda and careers, they undermine women by bad mouthing them to their bosses or colleagues behind their backs.

4. Not supportive of working mothers

They make it more difficult for working mothers to balance their responsibilities by denying them flexibility. They may go as far as disparaging them if they cannot be available at a specific time but expect them to work after hours and weekends when needed.

5. Side with perpetrators when women bring attention to their issues with HR

All too often, bringing issues to HR managers who tend to be women results in retaliation and sometimes job loss.

6. Favor male colleagues

Treat their male colleagues with more respect and professionalism. Because they want to be accepted in the boys club, they intentionally or sub-consciously sabotage their female coworkers. They go as far as to offer them high visibility projects, recommend them for career advancements, and give them opportunities to shine.

7. Demean or put women down in front of others

To appear better or more accomplished in the eyes of their male peers or boss, they go out or their way to make you look incompetent.

8. Give recognition to male colleagues for their achievements but ignore yours

To gain favor from their male counterparts, they become their greatest cheerleaders while ignoring your achievements.

9. Take pleasure when their female colleagues stumble

Instead of supporting their female counterparts when they make mistakes, they find amusement, relish in their failure, and find opportunities to amplify their missteps.

10. Have higher expectations for their female colleagues than their male peers

Hold their female colleagues to a higher standard while allowing male peers to coast through, engage in questionable behavior, and muscle their way through promotions, pay increases, and expanded roles within the company.

11. Pay female employees less than their male counterparts for the same roles

This last one irks us the most. How can we champion for pay equity for women when we’re the ones sabotaging our own? We can not expect inequities to magically disappear. We have to set an example on how to treat women fairly in the workplace.

How women can do better

1. Recognize that we’re all in it together

You don’t have to look too far to know that there’s strength in numbers. As this New York Times article demonstrates, when women come together to fight inequality and sexism, change happens swiftly.

2. Give women the opportunity to grow

Realize that the more of us in leadership positions, the higher the likelihood for women to be recognized for their achievements and rewarded for it.

3. Create an environment where women can showcase their accomplishments.

Offer women stretch goals. Assign projects that give them more visibility and an opportunity to shine; showcase their capabilities and talents.

4. Speak up when they see injustices against their female colleagues

All too often, women’s ideas are ignored while the same ideas when presented by their male colleagues are recognized and taken seriously. Don’t be afraid or shy to call out these instances when they happen. It could be as simple as reiterating the idea in a meeting and referencing the woman who brought the idea to the table first.

5. Mentor the women around you

Seek out opportunities to coach and help women in your workplace. You have the power to ensure that they gain the tools they need to succeed, avoid missteps, learn to navigate an environment that largely favors their male colleagues and gain the confidence to ask for what they deserve. The latter includes negotiating for higher salary, promotions, and high visibility projects.

6. Treat women fairly

Don’t sabotage women’s careers. Pay them what they deserve. Give them a career path where they can grow and recognize them appropriately for their achievements. This will set an example not only for your male peers but for the women as well so that when they become leaders, they will know how to champion for other women.

Hold them to the same standards that you hold their male counterparts. In addition, listen to their grievances and take them seriously. Give them a hand up when they fail so they can learn from their mistakes and not be afraid to take calculated risks.

Give working mothers (and father’s) the flexibility to balance their lives and to thrive.

And finally, show empathy and compassion. Treat the women around you with the respect and professionalism that they deserve. It is your responsibility to ensure that the workplace is safe and equitable for everyone.

Our goal for this post is not to merely point out the flaws in women leadership or to imply that male managers do not fail women but rather to raise awareness so we can do better for women in the workplace. After all, we cannot correct what we don’t know. We have to be diligent about defining the problems in our leadership before we can find viable solutions.

We hope that our post will help you and the women around you become model leaders for girls and young women around you.

Your turn gapmusers. What have been your experiences with women in leadership positions? How do you think they can do better? Please share with us and our readers so together we can make a better workplace for women.

Here are some real life stories that inspired us to publish this blog post.

Be inspired.

Real Life Stories

The Trap of Insecurity

By Julie Liu

She was smart and creative. But she was extremely insecure and unpredictable. These last two qualities made working for my female supervisor unbearable. She second-guessed herself so much that it made it difficult for my colleagues and me to move our projects forward – there was always a better solution out there. It also made for a very tense work environment because we were always trying to make sure that everything was perfect. She micro-managed us and often said that she did not have confidence in our work. Every day was exhausting as we tried to manage her mood instead of doing the work we were hired to do. This behavior led to key talent leaving.

Her insecurity showed up in other ways: she criticized us about everything! From the clothes we wore, to the way we spoke, to how we chose to spend our free time.  It got so bad that when she asked me what I did over the weekend I would just say “Oh I just relaxed.”  Because I didn’t want to be judged on what I did in my free time.

I now have a male supervisor who is very secure. This translates into him making decisions quickly, which allows my projects to move forward at a reasonable pace. Any criticism is focused on the work – not on my personality. This is a pleasant change.  My advice to women supervisors is to watch out for the trap of insecurity — it has a negative impact on your entire team! Trust yourself and trust your staff.


Inequity, Self Interest, Unfairness and Sacrifice

By Jordyn Smith

At the time of this anecdote I was working at ABC Company. The SVP, Senior Director and Director of my organization were all female. There were two strong performers (1 male and 1 female) that had come into the department as contractors and were getting converted to full-time employees.

Both of these new hires were from the same MBA school, graduating in the same class with similar work experience and output.  My director purposely offered the female far less than the male new hire. How can we fight pay equality when our own FEMALE director didn’t stand up for equal pay? I was disgusted when I heard this and noted it in my company satisfaction survey.

I’m currently reporting to a female.  She was my colleague of the same level before she went on maternity leave and was tapped for this promotion before she returned.  I was put (buried) into her organization and went from reporting to a male Sr. Manager to a brand new junior manager who used to be my peer.  I was disappointed to have an added layer in my management ladder.

It’s been a couple years now and she’s found her managing style; it’s a shame that it involves a high amount of critique and very little praise. She hasn’t provided any career growth opportunities or coaching. The four of us reporting to her have all been stuck at our same level for years (I’ve been stuck here for 6-7 years). She does nothing to champion any of us. Other female managers in the department work closely with their employees to find ways to increase their pay and get promotions – not my manager.

Other manager groups in the department allow their employees to work from home a day a week (these are all work streams that report into my same director). But not our group. When I voiced this inequity to my female manager in December, she acted like our shared Sr. Manager was the reason for this and that it’s just his managing style. She said that we should be thankful that he champions our group in other ways. Bull crap. I live eight minutes away from a local office that I have asked repeatedly to get to work from on occasion and it gets rebuffed.

This female manager said I can no longer work remotely for any ‘fluffy’ reasons. It can only be child illness or appointments. I’ve been hesitant to take it further as I don’t want my colleagues who have flexibility to lose those perks. As of 1.5 months ago, my manager now works from home on Wednesday (her child has a standing appointment in the morning and she made a fuss about coming in at 11.00 a.m. and she hasn’t been in for the last 4+ Fridays. She doesn’t notify the team that she won’t be here or that her schedule has permanently changed. So she’s now negotiated her own flexibility – but she has done nothing to make a path for me – even though she knows it’s VERY important to me and I’m taxed.

I could go on and on – but you get the general point. She’s after her own interests. She doesn’t want to rock the boat by pushing for her own employees to achieve any new pay/standing.  She has in essence taken a big step back in her overall engagement – which as a leader is detrimental to her employees success.

I should also note that my Sr. Director (female) has repeatedly hidden the promotions of colleagues in our group. Likely to not get the rest of us (rightfully) angry. She tends to favor men, the male colleague I mentioned above got hired full-time – then promoted TWICE within two years.  The rest of us keep performing each year, meeting all the new demands and get NOTHING.  But not that dude, he’s got a silver spoon.  My pay increase for 2016 was 1% and 2.5% for 2017 – pathetic.

You likely wonder why I stay here… I want to have another baby and starting a brand new job would really rock our family dynamic.  So I’ll just put up with this until then and my plan is to stay home with the kids and find part-time options for additional income.

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