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Is the biggest barrier for women in leadership other women?

Laura Johnson

Is the biggest barrier to women reaching the leadership ranks other women?
Laura Johnson investigates

Reluctance to compete with fellow female colleagues is an overlooked barrier to women reaching their full potential at work. This so-called Sisterhood ceiling theory was picked up by The Telegraph recently, suggesting rather than part-time working, maternity leave and parental responsibilities, its actually over-reacting to competition from other women that could be preventing more female professionals achieving leadership roles.

Its a concept I refuse to relate to. Its not my experience. And worse than that, it reinforces what I believe to be the most damaging stereotype hindering women seeking equality in the workplace. Contrary to popular belief, were not all delicate little flowers or prone to emotionally charged reactions to challenge. We can handle competition with just as much gracefulness and aplomb as the next man regardless of the gender of our adversary. You just have to give us a chance. And that means we need to stop treating women with kid gloves.

The Telegraph article was provoked by an academic study by UCL School of Management, where researchers asked almost 800 volunteers to carry out a series of activities to gauge their attitude to challenge from people of both sexes. One of the core findings of the report was that the traditional competitive career structures most employers use, where colleagues are encouraged to compete for promotion, puts female workers at a disadvantage. They claim an inherent feature of female peer culture is discomfort with competing with same gender co-workers and, more specifically, taking it overtly personally if they are placed in this situation.

Its interesting to see a new argument in the equality at work debate but its not one I'm particularly convinced by. I've come across my fair share of rivals during my career journey. Everyone has a personal work nemesis (or two), right? I'm not talking about the office companion who has some particularly annoying character flaws or a habit of accidently missing you out of the tea round, but a nemesis of the true archenemy variety; a co-worker you constantly find yourself head-to-head with for promotions or someone who always seems to pip you to the post when it comes to lucrative projects.

For me, sometimes its been a male colleague and other times female. Being competitive by nature, I approach challenge from all co-workers regardless of gender with equal gusto and resolve. Competing against a fellow female doesn't change my approach, or my response if I fail. I can be guaranteed not to cry, throw a strop or hold a grudge for the rest of the year. And I don't think I'm unusual. Most career-focused women I've had the pleasure to work alongside are gifted with a lot more tenacity, steadfast determination and professional poise than were typically given credit for.

This misconception presents the real barrier to career advancement in my experience. During my career I've been attracted to employers who have deeply engrained old boys network cultures accountancy, property and legal professional service firms. These can be tough environments for women to be taken seriously. For example, if you find yourself in a meeting and there doesn't happen to be a secretary present, nine times out of ten, you'll automatically be expected to take the notes, even when you are amongst equally or lower ranked male colleagues. Its frustrating and degrading, but I managed to grin and bear this. What I found more difficult to stomach was the assumption that, as a female of the species, I would crumble into an emotional mess or a hormone-fuelled rage in the face of any form of adversity.

It causes people to tiptoe around female workers when they have a bone to pick with their work. Dealing with an issue head on is too often the last resort due to the assumption that women are easily offended and will take criticism personally. Its a stereotype that's even used as a justification for a colleague going behind a female co-workers back, because he doesn't want to upset her. Until women reject this image of being sensitive souls, we will never be treated as equals. What we definitely don't need is anything that reinforces the emotionally volatile image of women. Because who wants to be led by someone with ingrained irrationality or with a tendency to wilt in the face of confrontation? Certainly not me.

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