When women manage women

The uneven playing field and the inherent stresses of managing others take a huge toll on women leaders


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Women are still under-represented at every level in the corporate pipeline, according to a recent 2015 study carried out by a partnership of LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company.

The report tells a familiar story: Women face greater barriers to advancement and a steeper path to senior leadership than men. The report states that a key reason for the under-representation of women is due to the path to leadership being disproportionately stressful for women.

A new leadership program being offered by the New England Women’s Leadership Institute addresses, among other things, the stresses that women in leadership face and especially how this can affect the way in which they manage other women.

While there are many excellent women bosses out there, unfortunately there are some women bosses who are a nightmare to work with. Some of us have watched the terrifying Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada” and laughed as we recognized the dreadful traits exhibited by some female boss who has made our lives a misery.

Research shows that well over 50 percent of women have women-manager horror stories. Sadly, many of these women claim they would rather work for a man. This, of course, does not advance the case for promoting females into positions of leadership.

What is not taken into account is the huge stress that many women in leadership positions face largely due to all kinds of projections by both women and men.

At work, women are held to a higher standard than men. We expect women to be more competent, more strategic, more caring, more dedicated and, well, more almost everything than a man in an equivalent position.

Women are also caught in innumerable double binds. If they are assertive, they are considered bossy and controlling. If they are nice, they are considered ineffectual. If they show too much compassion, they are considered weak and indecisive. If they focus on performance and accountability and shelve their emotions they are considered hard, cold bitches. If they are too pretty, they are surely sleeping with someone higher up. If they do not pay attention to their looks, they are not taken seriously. And the list goes on. Sadly these perceptions are held by many women, not just by men.

My doctoral dissertation was based on a research project focused on the ethical challenges faced by women in positions of power and leadership. The findings were telling. The vast majority of the over 100 senior executive women interviewed claimed that their major challenge lay in how to hold onto their power. As a result, they would very carefully choose their moral battles so as not to undermine their credibility. Over 80 percent spoke about the stress they experienced in their positions and in the vigilance they had to maintain at all times.

A further stress-related factor for many women in managerial or leadership positions is that many women and men prefer working for men. Both genders are used to men being in charge.

A book written in 1987 by Judith Briles, “Woman to Woman”. From Sabotage to Support,” cites dozens of stories by woman bosses who have been the subject of sabotage, undermining and destructive rumormongering by the women who report to them. It is both absurd and regrettable that nearly 30 years later the book’s stories and message are still so relevant.

Another important element of women’s stress or distress as they advance in their careers is their resentment.

Understandably, many women resent the fact that there is an uneven playing field. They resent having to be better than men and often they are way more competent than their male bosses. They are also under constant critical scrutiny from superiors and peers.

As the LeanIn/McKinsey report highlights, women are less often consulted for their opinions than their male counterparts and are less likely to receive credit for their successes. They are frequently instructed to clean up corporate messes that were no part of their doing. In the attempt to suppress their anger and frustration related to these factors, they tend to internalize their resentment. The result is heightened stress, which can leak out on the most vulnerable in the hierarchy – other women. 

Annabel Beerel is president and CEO of the New England Women’s Leadership Institute, whose one-day seminar, “Women Managing Women,” identifies the stressors that women in positions of leadership face and provides strategies for dealing with these stresses. For more information, visit newli.org. 

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