We need more women in leadership, but is it a silver bullet?

"Raise your hand if you have ever felt personally victimized by Regina George"

That scene from Mean Girls is so hilarious and so iconic. Probably because it’s so relatable, even well after we’ve all graduated from high school.

Too frequently, women cut other women down. We’re missing out on a critical conversation about women in the workplace when we don’t talk about it.  

We often lament the lack of women in leadership and rightfully so. It’s a powerful thing as a woman to watch another woman lead and we just don’t get to see it enough. When we do have that kind of role-modeling it sends a strong message that, yes, you can do this too. You can run this meeting, you can own this room, you can run this business.

When it comes to women in the workplace, however, it’s not all lean-in-circles and mentorships. For every Sheryl-Sandberg-type there is a Regina George; and as Regina so perfectly personifies, women can do outrageous things when they feel intimidated or threatened by other women.

This brings me to an honest truth we have to start talking more about: simply having more women in leadership is not the silver bullet. The reason why? Too often, women are actually blockers for other women in the workplace.

“Ugh, I hate working for women,” blurted out a friend, a marketing executive, when I told her I was writing about women in leadership.

In fact, that reaction was nearly universal from the 14 women I discussed this topic with over the last week. They work in varied jobs spanning law, real estate, sales, medicine, public affairs, media, and fundraising. Yet as we chatted over drinks, lunch, or a playdate, every single one of them had a story to tell me about a woman in the workplace who made them feel dismissed, intimidated, undermined, or sometimes even bullied.

They had stories about a female boss who took credit for their ideas and accomplishments in public but belittled them in private. Stories about a female boss who praised them in private but undermined them in front of others...

Stories about a female boss who complained about pregnancies and gossiped relentlessly about other women on the team. Stories about a female boss who made them feel “hazed” because “they had to go through it, too.” Stories about a female boss who were quicker to promote men for comparable work.

“It’s just really sad,” reflected another friend who works in PR:

“I’m lucky. I love my [male] boss. He couldn’t be more respectful of the women on his team. I feel challenged, but supported. I know not all of the women I work with are having the same experience, so I recently started mentoring some of the younger women in our group who report to women.

Randi, I’m horrified--just horrified-- by the stories I hear.

The saddest part is that we’re creating a vicious cycle. This is what these women are learning about leadership and management. This is what these women are learning about being a woman at the top. This is all they know. Why should we expect them to manage any differently when they get to the top next?”

And it’s not just from the top down. It’s from the middle up. Just as common were stories about women who watched their female bosses disparage the few female executives above them: snide comments, publicly questioning their judgement, eye rolls in meetings, and even spreading malicious gossip. All things which do absolutely nothing to advance women’s standing or experiences in the workplace.

These lived experiences are far too common. Adding insult to injury, women are often dismissed when they try to speak up or speak out. Whether women are experiencing truly hostile behavior or just have a boss who is a blocker, the reality is the same. The bar is higher for women to be taken seriously when they have legitimate issues working with other women. What should be taken seriously as a management issue or a formal Human Resources complaint is too often brushed off—without appropriate documentation—as a “miscommunication” or “clash of personalities.” Corporate speak for “cat fight.”  

So, are men the answer? Not in and of themselves, but they can be important allies and champions for women. I know this because I’ve lived it. Women can also be champions and I know this because I’ve also had the opportunity to work for some extraordinary women.

Still, we can’t just assume that every woman in leadership is going to be that champion. Unfortunately, I’ve lived that reality, too. The assumption that women just automatically elevate other women in the workplace doesn’t just lack nuance, it’s patently naive.

Yes, we need more women in leadership, but it’s not the silver bullet in and of itself. There’s a reason why Mean Girls is so popular nearly 15 years later. There’s a reason why women laugh, cry, and then laugh so hard that they cry again when they watch it. It’s because the story of how outrageously terrible women can be to other women is so outrageously, terribly relatable. Having more women in leadership can make a difference but it’s not a solution in and of itself: like everything else in life, it’s not about quantity. It’s about quality.

Women will advance in the workplace when other women advance first and then set the tone with quality leadership. Women will advance when other women treat them with respect, invest in them, empower them, celebrate their success when they’re right, and coach them up when they’re in wrong. If we can get quantity and quality, we’ll really be onto something.