When I started hiring women for sales jobs at this magazine in the 1970s, I was warned by many male colleagues that the females just weren't up to doing the job.
This probably shouldn't have been surprising; sales was largely a man's world in that era. But I had had an experience many men couldn't share. Years before becoming publisher of Modern Healthcare I worked with an outstanding saleswoman, one of the best I have seen-man or woman-in this business. She was a hard worker, creative and tenacious.
Her example proved that women could hack it in sales. And yet when I started interviewing, I was surprised that not only male but also female colleagues told me that sending women out to sell our magazine to advertisers might be a bad idea. But I went ahead anyway and hired a number of saleswomen-including two sales directors-who have been key players in making Modern Healthcare the success it is today.
Which leads me to the reason for this column. I recently received a copy of a new book, In the Company of Women, sent to me by a co-author, Susan Murphy. Since receiving it, I've had a hard time putting it down because it describes a phenomenon that many of us recognize and experience in the workplace. It's a hypersensitive topic, one that we are reluctant to name or discuss for fear of being politically incorrect. Let's put it this way: The book's subtitle is Indirect Aggression Among Women: Why We Hurt Each Other and How to Stop.
Murphy and co-author Pat Heim (Susan Golant contributed to the book) have much experience in the workplace. Murphy is a business consultant, graduate school professor and president of Energy Engineering, a consulting firm for energy companies. She has 30 years' consulting experience, having worked with organizations such as Bank of America, Shell Oil and Texaco. Heim, also the author of Hardball for Women and Smashing the Glass Ceiling, is president of the Heim Group, which provides consulting services to General Mills, IBM Corp., Lucent Technologies, McDonald's Corp. and a host of other clients. Golant has authored or co-authored 22 books including Going to the Top and Helping Someone with Mental Illness (with Rosalynn Carter), which won the 1999 Outstanding Nonfiction Book Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
These women are experienced, successful professionals. So when they identify a problem among women at work, they aren't doing it lightly or without plenty of examples.
One question often posed in gender workshops Murphy and Heim have conducted is, "When a woman gets promoted, who is the first to attack her? The answer is always a resounding `women.' " The authors also make it clear that no matter who's in the group-men, women or both-or what the profession is, women find a way to sabotage other women.
"Without fail, in 20 years of conducting conferences and workshops about gender differences in business, almost every participant we've encountered has acknowledged that women damage other women's career aspirations," the authors write.
Murphy says that most men feel helpless to resolve conflicts among their female employees, labeling many of these problems "catfights." Most of the time men keep their heads down and hope women will resolve the conflicts themselves. Most of the time they don't. As Murphy sees it, men and women need help with this issue.
Andrea Sachs, in a Time review of In the Company of Women, quotes Susan Estrich, University of Southern California law professor and author of Sex & Power: "There's not a successful woman today who doesn't know that sometimes women are your best friends and sometimes they're your worst enemies." Estrich was the first female president of the Harvard Law Review and tells the story of Harvard's only female law professor at that time. "She used to almost consistently vote against any woman whose name came up for a professorship. She'd look at us and say `There are no women qualified to teach here.' "
Estrich believes that such "queen bee" behavior results from "a sense of insecurity, a sense of your success will come at my expense, that somehow if I'm not the only woman in the room, they'll get rid of me altogether. And if I push too hard for other women, they will see me as a women's woman, as opposed to being one of the boys."
The book doesn't just detail the problem. There are plenty of tips for diffusing the infighting. Some strategies that are addressed include opening lines of communication and confronting domineering women, gossip and those who conspire behind the scenes.
There are and will be people who disagree with the ideas espoused in In the Company of Women. Lawyer Janie Smith of Business and Professional Women USA, says, "You're going to have people who get along, and people who don't get along, of both genders. My personal experience has been for the most part, women are pretty supportive of one another." Others believe that we have to confront the issue of women sandbagging women.
There are no easy answers to this complicated matter but In the Company of Women should be read by both female and male executives to gain additional insight into how to work alongside women.
There is a difference,
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Lauer is the author of two books, Reach for the Stars and Soar with the Eagles, and is an experienced guest lecturer available for public speaking engagements. For more information, visit www.chucklauer.com