Smashing the Sisterhood Ceiling
by Dr. Kristen Liesch
*A Note: I first published this article on another site a few years ago. The concept intrigued a Glamour writer who wrote for a broader audience, hoping to add context to the “queen bee,” “sisterhood ceiling” or “mean girl” phenomenon. Nevertheless, the idea that women are their own worst enemies, both personally and collectively, persists. It’s always time to ask: “Is this true?” about those truisms that seem to make sense, seem to resonate with our experiences. And so here’s “Smashing the Sisterhood Ceiling” once again.
It’s been called the “sisterhood ceiling” - the phenomenon that sees women preventing other women from advancing in the workplace - and it’s a thing.
While it’s a fact that workplaces are rife with systems and organizational habits that present barriers to the advancement of female talent, it’s also true that women aren’t exactly helping each other out.
Chances are, if you’re a woman in the workplace, you’ve felt undercut by another woman at least once in your career. It’s also likely you’ve held higher/different standards for your female managers compared with male managers.
These phenomena are the results of several factors.
VIOLATING GENDER NORMS
When women act outside of what are stereotypically considered “acceptable” roles, they pay a penalty - they sometimes even penalize themselves.
IN THE HOME...
In a study of the division of labour in homes with two working parents, as the financial contribution of the woman approaches that of the man, her time spent on housework decreases. However, once her earnings equal his - and when she earns more than her male partner - something counterintuitive happens:
The more she earns, the more housework she does.
Even when the male partner does not have a job, the female partner still does the majority of the housework.
The theory behind this phenomena suggests that women are subconsciously aware of the fact they are violating dominant social expectations and so overcompensate accordingly.
We punish ourselves for not falling in line with social norms.
(See Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender for a comprehensive discussion of this phenomenon.)
IN THE WORKPLACE...
The backlash against women who violate stereotypical gender norms manifests in the competence/likeability dilemma.
The Heidi/Howard Roizen Case Study concluded that when women exhibit characteristics associated with leaders - like assertion, authority, and dominant behaviors - they tend to be disliked. Hence, women cannot be both competent and likeable.
The Columbia Business School study presented half a class with the case study of “Heidi Roizen,” a venture capitalist and a former entrepreneur. The other half of the class was given the same case study, but Heidi’s name was swapped with “Howard.” The students rated “Howard” and Heidi as equally competent. But they did not like Heidi.
Our biases are rooted in evolutionary biology. At one point, it was critical for human to distinguish--in a split second--a member of their tribe from another human who might pose a threat. The effects of this imperative are still with us and we know them now as implicit biases.
When I took an implicit bias test, I was disappointed (but not shocked) to find I favour whites over blacks, and associate women with the humanities and men with math and science.
I was disappointed because gender equality, diversity and inclusion are my life’s work and passion. I was not shocked because implicit bias is just that: implicit.
Jake Stika, co-founder and executive director of Next Gen Men puts it this way, “Implicit bias isn’t good, it isn’t bad, it just is.”
Articles that describe the “sisterhood ceiling” are quick to point out the ways women sabotage each others’ professional success, but don’t always point out the conditions that produce this scenario.
To make another evolutionary reference: when resources are scarce, competition ensues.
In the workplace, if women perceive that leadership roles for women are scarce, they compete for these limited spaces (the perception and the ensuing competition are subconscious, in most cases.)
Scarcity threat can mean that women in leadership roles are less likely to promote women who work beneath them, while simultaneously being more likely to hire the least competent of women who work beneath them.
Scarcity threat dissipates once critical mass is achieved (33% representation).
The effects of scarcity threat don’t just threaten a woman’s career, they can sabotage an organization’s viability.
This fact is clear in many of today’s law firms, where the issues of succession planning and gender equity intersect. For many reasons, law firms are working hard to increase the number of women who make partner. There is a huge pool of female law grads (sometimes female grads outnumber male grads), but women leave private practice in droves.
55% OF FEMALE ASSOCIATES LEAVE PRIVATE PRACTICE WITHIN 4 ½ YEARS.
While the causes of this exodus are varied and complex, scarcity threat is one of them.
The low representation of women at partner level has a significant effect on female associates’ careers: female associate retention was highly correlated with the number of senior women; the fewer the female role models, the less likely female associates were to be promoted or stay at the firm.
TRANSFORMING THE "SISTERHOOD CEILING" INTO A FEMALE COALITION
Given the pervasiveness and subconscious drivers behind the so-called “sisterhood ceiling,” how can women in the workplace hack the scenario to the benefit of all women?
UNDERSTAND YOUR BIAS, THEN BE SMARTER THAN YOURSELF
Books like Jessica Bennett’s Feminist Fight Club and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business cover the phenomena I list above. Informing yourself of the dynamics at play in the workplace is one of the steps you can take toward developing an arsenal against the kind of sabotage that hurts us all.
The next step is to interrupt your biases with clever systems.
For example, if you’re in charge of hiring/promotions:
require applicant resumés be blinded to demographic details
conduct structured interviews, have multiple stakeholders interview candidates (separately), then make decisions as a team - you will be less likely to make decisions based on group-think or other phenomena such as the “halo effect” (see here for more about interviews and implicit bias)
request that promotion pools reflect (at least) the demographic breakdown of the organization; even better, request (at least) 30% female candidates
outsource promotion decisions to another department, if possible
TAKE AFFIRMATIVE ACTION AND BUILD CRITICAL MASS
"The only way we truly break down the tendency for women to compete against one another is to get more of them in power."
- Jessica Bennett, Feminist Fight Club
Research shows that when the share of women in leadership increases, the share of women in mid-level management also rises. Not only that, the more women in an organization, the better off that organization is: more female CEOs or board chairs means more women are in leadership, the more supported women--at all levels--in that organization feel (see here and here).
If you’re in a position of leadership, share the business case for gender equity, then set your organization on the path to success by:
establishing a baseline (understand who you hire, who you promote, in what numbers, at what times, and in relation to gender)
setting targets for female representation
linking the achievement of gender equity targets to the compensation and evaluation of other leaders
listen to women! If you’re going to try to solve for the barriers women face in their careers, invite women to co-design those solutions, drawing on their best ideas and lived experiences.
APPROACH "FRENEMIES" HEAD ON
Be direct. If you observe an act of “sisterhood sabotage,” call it out.
Once you become aware of the (subconscious) dynamics at play in the workplace, make it your mandate to inform others and intervene.
Caveat: Many women do not occupy a position of privilege in the workplace, and cannot afford to stir the pot. So, if you have the privilege of speaking your mind, do it. If you’ve got the privilege but you’re too scared to stand up for the issue, get brave. Nice girls don’t change the world.
SING HER PRAISES
Support other women by broadcasting the great work they are doing.
You can shatter the “sisterhood ceiling” by shining a light on the successes of the women around you.
Identifying women’s contributions makes it harder for others to dismiss or minimize them.
When women boast about each other, they are perceived as team players, and they aren’t seen as self-serving--boasting on another’s behalf can even help them get promoted, which, as we now know, helps us all climb the ladder.
REMEMBER: IT'S ALL ABOUT NUDGES
There is no silver bullet for the challenges women face in the workforce. Instead, every change you make - every tactic you employ - nudges us all one step closer to the gender equity we deserve, and need.
DR. KRISTEN LIESCH
Co-CEO, Women’s Work Institute
Kristen is a strategist and educator with 15 + years of experience designing transformative curricula, implementing equitable process changes, and capacity-building programs to support the design of more equitable organizations in Canada and
New Zealand. Her unique academic background informs her methodology as a strategist and consultant working to advance equity. Combining practices and theories from the social sciences, education, and interdisciplinary humanities, Kristen supports leaders as they work toward cultivating more equitable, effective, and prosperous organizations.