Dealing with the glass ceiling

March 15, 2007

Women, as we all know, historically have been under-represented in many professions and especially in leadership roles.

Women, as we all know, historically have been under-represented in many professions and especially in leadership roles.

The "old boys' club," in which male superiors support and advance male employees while oppressing women, results in the so-called glass ceiling, in which women find they often are unable to rise to positions of influence and authority within an organization.

The solution is to identify capable women who can assume leadership roles, because they will serve as mentors and role models for young women in the company/medical or law practice/academic department, and ensure that women are offered chances for development and advancement at least as actively as men. In effect, an "old girls' club" now will serve the same function for women for which the old boys' club is famous.

But it seems that conventional wisdom may be wrong.

In the February issue of Psychology Today, clinical psychologist Judith Sills, PhD, presents a fascinating analysis of the perceptions of young women in the workplace who "say that other women in power are holding them back."

According to Dr. Sills, women are less likely than men to mentor younger women. Some men, we are told, are willing to reach out to and mentor young female colleagues (the right thing to do) because they believe that women are weak and in need of help (the wrong reason).

I recommend this article to you. It is provocatively titled, "Catfight in the boardroom: Do women hold other women back?"

Whether reality or perception, writes Dr. Sills, office pressures can make women uncooperative.

Vignettes include the following:

Common survey finding

Apparently, surveys of women in the workplace consistently reveal that, rather than being perceived as the advocates of junior women employees via the "old girls' club," senior women at best are neutral and at worst obstruct the career development of younger women.

Dr. Sills writes: "A woman's worst workplace enemy? Another woman. Women, it is widely felt, hold other women back. Is there validity to this perception? I haven't seen data to prove it's true, but the fact that it is a common survey finding is powerful in itself.

Women blocking other women is a dangerous perception. It reinforces some inchoate portrait of the woman executive as insecure bitch, easily threatened, overly emotional, less able to focus on achievement because she is preoccupied with squelching younger talent."

Some observations

Being neither a psychologist nor someone who has researched this area, I cannot pretend to settle the question of whether women in positions of authority, in general, interfere with the career advancement of other women. Having observed several women in leadership positions (whether faculty, nursing staff, or administrative staff) in the three academic departments in which I have worked, my conclusion is that some women are effective mentors/role models/advocates for other women, whereas some women seem to be terrible in this role.

But exactly the same can be said for male leaders. One hopes there are a lot more of the good leaders to further the development of junior people, male or female.

Wherever the truth lies in terms of perception versus reality, one conclusion I draw is that it is a false assumption that simply putting women into positions of authority will eliminate the glass ceiling for women newly entering the work force under these women leaders.