When Sisters Turn into Saboteurs

“Whether or not saboteurs manage to convince others that a woman is incompetent, they may thwart her career just by jolting her self-confidence.”

We talk a lot about women supporting women. The dirty little not-so-secret is that women also sometimes undercut other women and sabotage their careers. The less we talk about it, the more it will continue happening.

Dr. Barbara Brock, professor of education at Creighton University in Omaha NE, never planned to study this topic. It emerged from her research for a forthcoming book with Dr. Marilyn Grady on principals dealing with difficult teachers. She noticed that women’s responses were different from men’s.

Emotional overtones marked women principals’ accounts of women teachers whom they found difficult. Brock began interviewing successful women educational leaders across a six-state area about their experiences of career sabotage by women. Of the first six she invited, only one said she’d never experienced it.

After Brock spoke on “Sisters or Saboteurs? When Sisterly Support Turns to Sabotage against Women Leaders” at the Women in Educational Leadership Conference at Lincoln NE in October, more women asked to participate in the study. One wrote, “Women need to know that others have been in their shoes.” At this writing she’s interviewed about 10 and her qualitative study keeps growing.

“We talk a good talk about how collaborative we are,” she told WIHE. And it’s true; most women are supportive. Every woman who’s achieved some level of success has many women to thank for their help along the way. At the same time, they’re at risk from a few bad apples who don’t want them to succeed.

Young, competent and attractive

Brock chose participants who are experienced and able leaders in college, university or K-12 education with a reputa-tion for mentoring women. All hold doctorates. Their memories of sabotage date from much earlier in their careers.

At the time they’d been young, competent and attractive. “The older we are, the more we can get by, because we’re not competing on so many levels,” she told WIHE.

Women look for ulterior motives and reach snap conclusions about other women. When you walk to a podium to give a presentation, within seconds the other women in the room have decided whether you’re more or less attractive than they are.

Women compete on many different levels in the workplace:

  • Attractiveness
  • Sexuality
  • Status
  • Education
  • Professional competence
  • Popularity among peers

Looking back, participants felt they’d been targets as threatening because of their youth, attractiveness, competence, popularity and friendships with men. One said being recently divorced had compounded the problem.

One common form of attack is sexual innuendo and rumor, ranging from you must have been hired for your figure to you must be sleeping with the boss. Beyond gossip and backbiting, sabotage includes actions to make a woman look professionally incompetent. Saboteurs make false reports, lose paperwork or withhold information.

When a newly appointed principal started her job, a teacher said, “The superintendent must like you. Looks must have something to do with it.” That teacher told the others to go on as they had been, saying the new principal wouldn’t be there very long.

Another woman noticed that things were missing or not turned in. First she had to confirm that something was really wrong. Then she had to figure out who was doing it. She was slow to acknowledge that a colleague she’d considered a friend was trying to make her look bad.

Women being sabotaged took a while to put two and two together. Some recently had been promoted, others were in competition for a promotion. Some didn’t even realize they were in competition, but other women saw them as promotable.

Sometimes the problem came from peers they’d considered good friends. That made the sabotage all the harder to recognize and when they did, they felt blindsided. In retrospect they described their saboteurs as insecure, feeling threatened because of a lack of self-confidence.

Why don’t men sabotage each other too? Sometimes they do, Brock said, but women are better at it. We’ve been learning how since childhood.

Socialized not to compete

Women keep a close circle of women friends. Even married women name a woman when they’re asked to name their best friend.

Relationships are central to women’s lives. A strong sense of egalitarianism goes with it. We judge ourselves and then choose friends and partners who seem on the same level.

There’s a Japanese saying that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. Many American women find that as well.

“We aren’t brought up to compete. When we have a problem, we take our toys and go home,” Brock said. Now we’re working our way into a men’s world where boy-style competition is built into the structure.

One man told her that he’d mentored a woman who was at a more junior level. Because she needed publication credits for tenure and promotion more than he did, he offered to put her name first on their joint publication. She turned him down, fearing that form of recognition would damage her friendships.

Women expect their friendships to be on a level field. When something changes—a promotion, for example—the power relationship gets skewed. Women in the old circle of friends may feel threatened.

Some of the old friends had been content in more traditional roles. A colleague’s promotion calls their traditional roles into question. “It raises the bar for them. They may not want to go there,” she said. They may feel insecure.

Others want the promotion for themselves or even have applied for it. “Some people don’t understand there’s plenty of success to go around,” Brock told WIHE.

Conflict avoidance

Nice girls don’t fight. Along with being socialized not to compete, girls aren’t socialized to deal with conflict assertively. A boy who gets mad at another boy punches him out. A girl gathers her girlfriends around and whispers. They point fingers. They exclude and ostracize.

Adolescent girl bullying, long overlooked, has gotten a lot of attention since the publication of Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher (1994) and Odd Girl Out: The Culture of Hidden Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons (2002).

Less attention has been given to the ways this passive-aggressive pattern continues into adulthood. Instead of addressing conflict directly, women whisper. They gossip and start rumors. Not most women, but a few are all it takes.

Pain and confusion are just as real among the competent, attractive young women who meet bullying in the work world as among teenagers on the playground. Decades later it still hurts. In her research Brock has been struck by the depth and endurance of their pain.

They didn’t believe it had hurt their careers, but their spirits were wounded. These highly successful women are still harboring feelings from 20 or 30 years before. One told her, “Twenty-six years later it’s as painful as if it was yesterday.”

While their careers weren’t hurt, the sample was skewed by the selection of highly successful women. Those who dropped out after a dreadful first year didn’t make it into the study. Whether or not saboteurs manage to convince others that a woman is incompetent, they may thwart her career just by jolting her self-confidence.

Practice discernment

Without exception they said they’d been blindsided; they didn’t see it coming. “We are socialized to trust each other as females,” Brock said. We have a long history of trust with our mothers, our sisters and our professors. We don’t look on other women with skepticism.

While she hesitates to say be less trusting, she recommends discernment in our relationships with women as well as men. Be cautious before we share confidences. Be aware of the possibility that others may not have our best interests at heart.

Sabotage can also happen when we collaborate. In higher education, she suggests being extremely careful in selecting collaborators and sharing ideas. New professors get their ideas stolen, sometimes by other women.

Women who are aware of the possibility of woman-to-woman sabotage can take steps to defray envy. Being friendly and social can help. Talk to everybody. You may decide to keep your style of dress within the group norm after a promotion instead to moving up to a more expensive or more formal level of dress.

Women can also learn to be more assertive about confronting sabotage when it occurs. Sit down with the offender and describe what you see happening, preferably with a responsible third party present. Keep records and cover your tracks.

Change the culture

Some found their interviews cathartic—it was the first time they’d told anybody about the experience. “Bullied children don’t tell. Bullied adults don’t either,” Brock said. When we don’t tell, each victim of sabotage thinks she’s the only one.

Personal shame is one reason we don’t talk about it. Being bullied takes a toll on self-esteem. Another reason is the negative image of women as conveyed in the term “catfight.” Women’s sabotage of women damages not only our relationships but also how men perceive us.

Across centuries and cultures, artists and authors have portrayed women as engaged in gossip. Men aren’t alone in maintaining the stereotype. How many women first-person novelists introduce a new character with words something like this: She was tall, gorgeous and immaculately dressed. From the moment she walked into the room I hated her.

One man offered to participate in her study to describe what he’d observed on campus. Faculty women in his de-partment were cordial to each other face to face. As soon as one walked away and they thought nobody was listening, they started ripping her apart. “Women were clawing to get to the top and didn’t care who they pulled down along the way,” he reported.

Overcoming this image won’t happen by keeping silence, but only by bringing such behavior into the open. We need to let women know sabotage can happen and name it when it does.

Pointing to the example of woman-to-woman mentorship, she said, “Most women are truly supportive. While this is our greatest strength, we also have issues we need to work on.”

We need to build a departmental culture where we care about each other and talk openly about problems. We need to overcome the passive-aggressive little-girl behaviors that keep us from competing and addressing conflict directly.

We need to have more frank conversations with young women about power relationships and the struggles that may ensue. We can teach them skills in competing and solving conflicts. “Starting when they’re little kids would be the best thing to do,” she said.

And we need to watch our own behavior. Few of us think of ourselves as saboteurs, but do we ever contribute by failing to intervene? “When we’re under stress, sometimes the uglies slip out,” she said. Have we ever enjoyed a chuckle when we watched another woman flounder?

Have we ever sat back when we could have helped? Sadly, one of the women she interviewed thinks women’s solidarity is a myth.

In Brock’s view, most of the time women are strong in collaboration and mutual support. By training young women differently and working to change the culture, we can overcome the ugly side and build on our greatest strength.

Contact her at bbrock@creighton.edu

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