When I was younger, I was scared of having a female boss. In my mind, she was a bully, a bitch, someone who would try to compete with you and put you down with belittling comments.
But Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s latest essay for The New York Times tells us why the “catty woman” at work is a complete myth. “The biggest enemy of women, we’re warned, is a powerful woman," she writes. "Queen bees refuse to help other women.” This is what I used to believe, too. Now, I work in a female-dominated office, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.
When I tell others that I’m surrounded by women all day, they squint their eyes and remark, “I couldn’t deal with that. Too much bitchiness.” But that just isn’t the case. We empower one another, especially when there are more of us.
I’ve worked in jobs where men would throw tantrums at their desks—slamming down the phone and yelling expletives at their computers. No one batted an eyelid. The female bosses I’ve had so far, however, know they can’t get away with that. Sandberg says that this double standard contributes to the myth.
“Queen bees exist, but they’re far less common than we think. Women aren’t any meaner to women than men are to one another. Women are just expected to be nicer,” she writes. If two women are having an argument, people assume there's drama, but, “When men argue, it’s a healthy debate.”
In a male-dominated environment, Sandberg explains we have to compete to be the “token woman”. At a previous job I had working for a website, I had one other female colleague, my age, also with blonde hair. We had many similar skills, and we both wanted to be on camera to create videos. There were about 10 other people presenting these videos—all middle-aged, white men. This was apparently not a problem. Having two young women on camera, though? That was unacceptable. There could only be one “token” woman. And so we competed for it.
"In male-dominated settings, token women are more likely to worry about their standing, so they’re reluctant to advocate for other women,” writes Sandberg. But when there are more women around, this doesn’t happen. Women are not catty, she writes—we are simply forced to compete with each other “as a result of inequality”.
It is entirely possible for women to disagree and still support each other. But in other industries, where the gender gap is vast, it is vital for women to lift each other up. As Sandberg told Lena Dunham in a recent interview, "the reality is that women accomplish amazing things when we support each other."
I see it in my office every day, and the benefits are mutual.