Women must practice career self-defense against subtle and not-so-subtle challenges.
September 7, 2018 6 min read
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The sad truth is that women in business must always be on the lookout for people who will try to discredit them. The opposition could come in the form of a direct challenge to your authority or a sneak attack to damage your reputation with your clients, your customers, your bosses and peers. Ask any woman in any line of work, and she’ll tell you how simple it is for a carefully planted seed of doubt or a well-placed bit of gossip to jeopardize her position by raising questions about her professional competence or her effectiveness in her business. Watching your back, unfortunately, is an inescapable part of the track to success. When it comes to protection from sneak attacks, you have to go it alone.
Sniper alert: king snakes, queen bees and mean girls
While working in big corporate law, I took on a high-stakes case requiring a team of associates and one junior partner. Unfortunately, all the junior partners were fully booked. Arriving to the “rescue,” another senior partner volunteered to “help” me. No sooner had he signed on than he announced to me that he’d be taking lead on the entire case. I doubt that he saw his actions as an attempt to push me aside. He was simply doing what powerful men do: He was conflating his involvement with being the boss.
I didn’t take his attempt to usurp me lying down. But, dealing with these sniper attacks is tricky business. A well-placed male enemy with deep connections in the old boys’ network is no small matter. If you’re not careful, one back-room political maneuver by a jealous rival could knock you off the rung you earned with your merit and grit.
For all the attacks that may come from men, however, what is often more unexpected is an attack from another woman. Whether arising from naked ambition or from the perception that there can be only one “queen bee” in the company, a back stab from within your own tribe carries its own unique sting.
While taking lead on a case for a Fortune 100 client, I pulled in several junior partners, including one woman. Within two weeks of bringing her on board, she was trying to poach the client. Her actions blindsided me. Fortunately, I had a 15-year relationship with the client, and she had zero chance of succeeding. Still, being double-crossed by someone who should be your ally is difficult to forget.
“Queen bee syndrome” describes a woman who has succeeded in her own career only to pull up the ladder behind her. It can also describe a woman who treats her female subordinates more critically than their male counterparts. I’ve long maintained that this corrosive phenomenon is rooted in the misguided perception that there is only room for one woman at the table, but I was surprised to learn that research now theorizes that queen bees are simply trying to emulate the men in an attempt to fit in.
Queen bees are trapped in a vicious cycle, according to one recent study. As they rise in their careers, they distance themselves from junior women, legitimizing and perpetuating the very gender discrimination that they faced while advancing their careers in male-dominated organizations. According to the study, queen bee behavior is a response to misogyny and the social-identity threats that women encounter in businesses controlled by men.
“Queen bees” may control the hive, but they’re not the only women standing in the way of progress. “Mean girls” are women who undercut or bully out of a desire for supremacy, jealousy or in response to a perceived slight, real or imagined. A 2010 study conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that female bullies directed their hostilities toward other women 80 percent of the time. In contrast, male bullies are equal opportunity bullies. A 2011 study of 1,000 working women conducted by the American Management Association found that 95 percent of these women felt they had been “undermined by another woman at some point in their careers.”
The fine art of career self-defense
Protect yourself from attack with these five strategies:
1. Maintain constant vigilance. It’s not helpful to become paranoid or to spend your entire professional life looking for slights or attacks. It does, however, make sense to expect that an attack could come at any time and to guard against exclusions, putdowns and lies before they go too far.
2. Build alliances. Countering sabotage is much easier if you’ve already established genuine working relationships. Well-placed allies, including people senior to you, can tip you off to threats and come to your defense if needed. Don’t neglect your broader network either. Leverage your contacts to build alliances beyond your own organization.
3. Don’t let it slide when you are attacked. Your enemies need to know that you can’t be trifled with — you’re tough as nails and will staunchly defend your position against their sabotage. Call out your attackers. Be direct. Make it clear that you’re not inviting debate; you’re simply explaining that you’re fully up to speed and that sabotage won’t go unpunished. You’ll be surprised how effective open confrontation can be.
4. Keep it professional. Counter-sabotage and underhanded tactics rarely work. Stick to the high road no matter how tempting the low road may be. When the truth comes out — and it will — you want to be able to hold your head high. Your integrity will distinguish you from those who have tried to undermine you.
5. Go above and beyond in proving yourself. Women are held to higher performance standards than men. Starting on Day One, deploy all the skills women have — talent, grit, emotional intelligence, femininity and strong relationships — to build your standing with your organization. That way you’ll be in as strong a position as possible when someone questions your character or suggests that you can’t cut it in terms of performance.
Perhaps you’ll be the rare woman who makes it through her career unscathed by sniper fire. But, it’s smarter to assume that you won’t and prepare yourself accordingly.