Why you should care
Because your female colleagues are more than likely your allies.
The movies and TV are full of stories of women sabotaging other females at work. Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, Katharine Parker in Working Girl and Amanda Woodward in Melrose Place immediately come to mind. But a new study has found that the “queen bee” syndrome in the workplace might not just be fictional. Turns out, women are more likely to clash with their female coworkers than with their male colleagues, according to “Gender and Negative Work Ties: Exploring Difficult Work Relationships Within and Across Gender at Two Firms,” published in the Informs journal Organization Science.
However, the study also found this:
Female coworkers who forge friendships at work are less likely to experience conflict.
Looking at data from 145 management-level employees at two large U.S. firms with primarily male-dominated environments, Jennifer Merluzzi, assistant professor of strategic management and public policy at the George Washington University School of Business, had expected to debunk the idea of the workplace queen bee. Instead, she found that women are more likely to cite their female coworkers (and not their male colleagues) as difficult. However, this situation is less likely when women have a female colleague who understands their challenges and with whom they can discuss concerns, Merluzzi says.
Women can echo each other’s ideas in meetings, endorse each other’s suggestions and make sure their female coworkers get as much airtime as their male colleagues.
Having a best friend at work is critically important for women in male-dominated fields, according to Ash Norton, founder of Ash Norton Engineering Leadership. In her first year after graduating, Norton worked at a coal-fired power plant, where she was one of just a handful of women and the only female engineer. “It was debilitatingly lonely,” she says. After making an effort to attend company events and network with other female colleagues, Norton eventually made friends — which “was a game changer,” she says. Not only did she feel more included, but she was also able to meet women who were role models, and her mood and performance improved at work. “It also gave me more confidence in interacting with male colleagues and leaders of the company,” she says.
It’s not surprising that women who have female friendships at work feel less conflict, says Robyn Tingley, founder and CEO of GlassSKY, a leadership firm for women. It’s easier to share concerns or frustrations related to juggling a job, motherhood and other competing pressures with another woman in similar circumstances than with a male colleague, she says.
Workplace friendships give women an opportunity to think through their priorities and to voice their concerns without feeling pressure to perform all the time or always be at their strategic best, Tingley says. They’re also a source of support. For instance, she says, women can echo each other’s ideas in meetings, endorse each other’s suggestions and make sure their female coworkers get as much airtime in meetings as their male colleagues — like redirecting the discussion back to a woman who has been interrupted. Workplace friends also make it easier for women to share salary information and promotion opportunities.
It’s also important to frame any workplace friendship as collaboration, not as competition, Norton notes; otherwise, “there could be a tendency to see two female engineers as vying for the same spot.”
The key takeaway: Make friends, not war, with your female colleagues. It’s good for your career and your mental health.