Women, Don’t Be a Queen Bee at Work

Anyone catch TV Land’s Younger last week (season 5, episode 9)? Because this is a G-rated blog, I’ll spare you the name of the episode. Suffice it to say, the episode showed that looking out for number one and clawing your way to the top does not help women achieve professional success.

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Love Affair Upsets Office Karma

Younger is my guilty pleasure; I’ve watched it every Tuesday at 10 p.m. EDT for the last four seasons. If you haven’t caught the show, Liza (Broadway star Sutton Foster) is a divorced single mother in her 40s who’s faced with ageism when she tries to reenter the world of publishing. By passing herself off as a 26 year old, Liza lands a job at Empirical Press, where she teams up with 20-something Kelsey (Hilary Duff). Together, Liza and Kelsey turn the imprint, Millennial, into a huge success.

The relationship between Liza and Kelsey gets complicated in Episode 9, however, when Liza reveals to Kelsey that she’s been having a secret romantic relationship with their boss, Charles (Peter Hermann). Feeling threatened by Liza’s new love interest, Kelsey suddenly sees Liza as competition. Kelsey later turns on Liza in a meeting with self-made billionaire and author Quinn Tyler (Laura Benanti), who is pitching Millennial her new book, Claw, in which she surmises that the only way women can get ahead in business, and life, is by clawing their way to the top and looking out for numero uno.

The stage is now set. In the episode, Kelsey is up for the Maverick Award at the Glamour Magazine Women of the Year awards gala. Before Kelsey takes the podium, Liza tries to convince Kelsey that she wants Kelsey and Millennial to succeed and that she’ll stop seeing Charles to salvage their friendship.

Taking Liza’s words to heart in her acceptance speech, Kelsey admits that she did not earn the award all on her own. Rather, she credits her working partnership with Liza as the secret to her success—which they achieved by working together. The episode ends with Liza telling Charles that Kelsey will always be a priority in her life. Liza gets it.

Women Helping Women

Episode 9 hit a chord with me. In its own small way, it showed what women can achieve together when they support each other on both a professional and personal level. Many women, especially those working in traditionally male-dominated fields, have been fortunate to have male leaders advocate on their behalf, which contributed greatly to their success.

So why are some of the same women often reluctant to return the favor and help other women succeed? It may be due to what psychologists refer to as the “Queen Bee effect,” in which women distance themselves from other women by viewing them as competition scrapping for limited available opportunities.

Luckily there are successful women, like Sheryl Sandberg, who advocate the importance of women helping women. In addition to her groundbreaking book Lean In, Sandberg launched “Together Women Can,” a public awareness campaign that celebrates the power of women supporting one another.

Sandberg emphasizes that women experience similar challenges in the workplace and should be powerful allies, as opposed to seeing one another as threats to individual success. As Sandberg said of her campaign, “When a woman helps another woman, they both benefit. And when women celebrate one another’s accomplishments, we’re all lifted.”

Importance to HR

As HR professionals, you’re tasked with creating a diverse and inclusive workplace, but diversity and inclusion start at the top with an organization’s leaders. Women leaders are uniquely qualified to help other women succeed in business, which will positively affect the retention of female employees. Sandberg’s Lean In website provides a number of effective suggestions for encouraging women to become powerful allies at work:

  1. Make sure women’s ideas are heard.
  2. Challenge the “Likeability Penalty” (e.g., describing women as “aggressive” and “ambitious” while viewing men with the same traits as “confident” and “strong”).
  3. Celebrate women’s accomplishments.
  4. Encourage women to go for it.
  5. Give women direct feedback.
  6. Mentor and sponsor other women.

When all else fails, ladies, remember the sage words of our first female U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

Now let’s get out there and go for it—together!

This article was written by Ellen C. Ham, a partner with FordHarrison LLP in Atlanta, and edited by regular EntertainHR contributor Marilyn G. Moran, a partner in Orlando. Ellen and Marilyn attended law school together at the University of Florida and have been friends for more than 20 years. They feel passionately that women need to help other women succeed in business and in life.  

Ellen is a member of the firm’s Executive Committee. Her practice focuses on traditional labor matters for the firm’s Airline Group clients, including providing strategic advice to management on a variety of labor issues, collective bargaining, arbitrations and litigating AIR21 claims. Find her on LinkedIn.