Equality at Work is not a One-Woman's Job

Article by: Melisa Özcelik

In your opinion, what makes a woman a competent leader? Think about characteristics, skills, appearance. Don’t overthink it, just gather some thoughts. Now ask yourself what makes a man a competent leader? If words like “helpful”, “kind”, and “cooperative” for women and “self-confident”, “strict”, and “competitive” for men come to mind, then you just fulfilled the so-called prescriptive stereotypes that are strongly embedded in our work environment (Sheppard 2017). But more interesting is the arising difference in reciprocal gender perception on the basis of prejudices in leadership behavior. If a leading man is described with attributions such as kind and cooperative, he faces significantly low discourtesy from other men. Quite the contrary with the mutual perceptions of women (Gabriel et. al 2018). A leading woman that is fierce, confident and dominant is perceived highly critical by her female colleagues (Gabriel et. al 2018). This phenomenon is also known as the backlash effect (Heilman et. al 2004).

But why do women often have that mutual skeptical perception of each other? There are for sure women that have neither realized, nor experienced the existence of this competition issue, or think that the discourse is only reduced to judging women’s appearances. But the roots lay in our subconscious belief. Individuals tend to compare themselves with others that are most similar to them - in our case same-sex individuals. Simultaneously, the mutual comparison leads to a sense of competition, which reinforces in a surrounding of scarce organizational resources. So, the fact that there are less leadership positions represented by women than by men significantly increases the perceived female competitive threat, and this has crucial consequences. According to a study of Parks-Stamm et. al (2008), a woman who faces a competitive situation and particularly develops an urge to compare herself with another woman, tends to decrease her self-esteem and job satisfaction, as well as shows a low positive self-image. A reason for this behavior is a woman’s natural restraint in stepping into a competitive environment. Men, on the other hand, more likely observe competition as a chance to present their job eligibility and as a circumstance in which they can unleash their best performance (Sheppard 2017).

But what can be done? It is needless to say that combating gender conflicts at work leads to a sustainable congenial and more productive atmosphere. Studies and my own exchange with women indicated three main notions that contribute to gender equality (SDG 5) and even to decent work and economic growth (SDG 8): One, promoting a women network, two, experiencing work with various women in leading positions, and three, teaching and training programs provided by companies.

Yes, having to fight for one, and only one, leading position in the office can unleash the competitor in you. But because your colleague made it and you didn’t, does not mean that you will never reach the same, or an even higher position. The key here is to use the female network and profit from it. A first step to promoting a women network can hereby mean to start asking and connecting with your female co-workers, while actively showing your interests in different projects and tasks. Importantly, asking does not mean you are less smart, or less self-confident or that you are desperate. It means to exchange and share knowledge, to learn from each other and profit from each other’s experiences. It is indeed hard to get to that point. The fact that women usually have to work twice as hard and show their eligibility twice as much as men made women often feel as lonely fighters. So, start small. This means to firstly ask one of your female colleagues to proof-read your recent report or presentation sheets, whereas you can offer your help, as well.

The second notion - experiencing a work setting with female leaders - represents a less active strategy compared to the network engagement. The chance to work with or observe women as leaders highly depends on the job type. This makes it an occurrence we have rather less control of. But being able to work in a professional environment in which mostly women dominate the leadership positions can provide you with hints to generate a personal motivation, the ambition to reach the same, and role models to look up to, while simultaneously realizing that more than one woman can make it to the top.

The third measure ties in with the first point of promoting a women network but goes beyond the individual perspective. It addresses companies that should carry out initiatives in order to reduce gender conflicts in the workplace. Enabling exchanging courses for employees, mentoring programs, behavioral training, and female working groups can have tremendous effects on reducing these same-sex conflicts (Gabriel et. al 2018).

So, DO exchange, do not be afraid to ask and use every opportunity to work with ambitious women because, and this is essential, there is more than one free seat for women at the table!


Gabriel A. S., Butts M. M., Sliter M. T. 2018. Women Experience more Incivility at Work – Especially from Other Women, in: https://hbr.org/2018/03/women-experience-more-incivility-at-work-especially-from-other-womenhttps://hbr.org/2018/03/women-experience-more-incivility-at-work-especially-from-other-women; (24.08.2020).

Heilman, M. E., Wallen, A. S., Fuchs, D., Tamkins, M. M. 2004. Penalties for success: Reactions to women who succeed at male gender-typed tasks. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89: 416-427.

Parks-Stamm, E. J., Heilman, M. E., Hearns, K. A. 2008. Motivated to penalize: Women’s strategic rejection of successful women. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34: 237-247.

Sheppard L. D., Aquino K. 2017. Sisters at Arms: A Theory of Female Same-Sex Conflict and Its Problematization in Organizations. Journal of Management, 43, 691-715.


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