Forget the glass ceiling — a new study thinks the biggest barrier to women getting ahead is the ‘sisterhood ceiling’. According to a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, women are more likely to fall out with female colleagues, who they suspect of trying to elbow them aside on the career ladder.
It means women could be damaging their own career prospects by overreacting to competitive behaviour in the office — something men apparently see as an accepted part of life and don’t lose sleep over. Career coach Corinne Mills agrees this is an issue. “The more senior you get, it’s not necessarily about talent and expertise and skills — it’s about politics. Men can be quite open about playing the game, whereas women can be more behind the scenes. That’s just the way it is.”
She thinks the biggest issue women have with other female colleagues is that they take things personally. Instead of seeing ‘power moves’ as just that, they see it as betrayal. “I definitely think women can take these things more personally. Most of the time, it’s actually about getting things done and business decisions. But women invest emotionally in their job quite a lot and their self-esteem is often linked to it. So, if what they think is a good idea isn’t taken up, they can find it harder to not take it to heart. Generally, men can be more resilient and get on with the next plan of attack.”
Assistant professor Sun Young Lee of the UCL School of Management, who led the ‘sisterhood ceiling’ study, agrees that one of the biggest issues is women taking competition too seriously. “As a woman who has worked across the world, I’ve long observed that women take competition with other women much more personally than men take competition with other men — my research provides support to such an observation. Women should be aware that taking competition too seriously could be holding them back from leadership positions.” She thinks that the answer lies in women changing their attitudes, as well as bosses recognising that competitive career structures may be detrimental.
But Jenny Scott, founder of networking organisation Mothers Meeting, thinks women could also benefit from opening up with one another and warns women away from a heavy reliance on online communication: “I think the competition and comparison comes from social media. Everybody puts a glossy filter on everything. Everyone’s feeling inferior and it’s so easy to bitch about people behind screens. At Mothers Meetings, it’s all about bringing people offline. People can look at each other in the eye and say it’s really bloody hard. It helps them see other women as people they can ask for help rather than see each other as competition.”
She opens up to other mothers about how she used to suffer from depression and says showing such vulnerability can help other women realise they’re not alone and not in competition. Jenny believes the idea of women viewing each other as rivals comes from the fact that many industries still tend to be male-dominated — so women feel they are battling each other for a limited number of roles and promotions. But it’s also down to pressure. “I think women feel they have more to prove,” she explains. “That they can be mums and have careers. For men, it’s more streamlined.”
The trick for women to get ahead is to manage this sense of competition without letting it hold them back. Because rather than the sisterhood being to blame, it seems that we are actually holding ourselves back out of a misplaced sense of rivalry. It’s a difficult balance, but it’s one Corinne thinks women are capable of achieving.
5 tips to help break free
Depersonalise. It’s not about you or your skills. You’ll win some and lose some.
Resilience and staying power is important. You need to be as tough as old boots to withstand the politics.
Don’t let things get to you or you won’t be able to cope at that level.
There will be self-serving seniors who have been ruthless to get to the top. Learn to manage them and realise if they’re fighting you, it’s because you’re in their way — not because of who you are.
You don’t have to be like those people. The best thing is be transparent. They try and offset people against each other, but if you’re open it becomes hard for them to get leverage. Be clear, honest and have integrity.