Book Addresses ‘Mean Girls’ Politics In The Workplace

By David Fondler
Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg famously told her female readers to “Lean In” when it came to advancing themselves in the workplace — and started a conversation.

Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella infamously told working women this month to stand back, not ask for a raise and have faith that the system, and “karma,” will reward them for their patience — and elicited a backlash. Nadella later apologized for his comments.

Then there is writer Anne Litwin, who advises women to work together to change rules that for years have been working against them.

In her book, “New Rules for Women; Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together” (Third Bridge Press), Litwin redefines the battle of the sexes: Forget Man vs. Woman, it’s actually Woman vs. Women in the competitive workplace. Her solutions are open communication and mutual empowerment.

Litwin seeks to find out why, based on her research, women say they would rather work for a male boss than a female boss.

The answer is that with a male boss, the goal-oriented workplace expectations are defined. Whereas women expect their female bosses and coworkers to be nurturing and friendly, and are dismayed when goals, results and discipline are enforced or when things become competitive.

When working women are seen backstabbing, gossipy or “catty,” it’s disheartening to those on the receiving end, but not unexpected: “That’s just the way women are,” Litwin’s research subjects say.

Litwin writes that these age-old female friendship rules are learned in childhood, tested in adolescence — think the “mean girls” in the school lunchroom — and then instinctively and unconsciously put into practice in the adult workplace.

A Boston-based business consultant by trade, Litwin was in St. Paul last week to promote her book. The book sprang from research Litwin began years ago while working on her doctoral dissertation.

In an interview, Litwin discussed many of the concepts in her book.

Her answers have been edited for context and clarity.

Question: What primarily do you think people should get out of this book?

A: “That there are ways in which many organizational cultures really set women up against each other, or at the very least create confusion for women about what to expect from each other in the workplace.

“I would like people to take away that they can change that experience when it is negative. My goal was to help women break the negative patterns that they experience all too often with other women at work.”

Question: Do you think all women, at some point in their professional lives, are undermined by other women?

A: “I don’t know about all women, but a majority do experience something like this. In my study, well over half of the women reported having an experience like this. I’ve seen studies where up to 75 percent of the women say they’ve experienced some form of undermining or sabotage or lack of support — on the continuum from mild to severe — from other women.

“They expect men to be competitive, to take the credit for ideas; it’s not a surprise. When it comes from women, they are shocked, surprised. I heard the word ‘sabotaged’ a lot. It think that really describes the strength of the emotional reaction.”

Question: But are most women, at some point in their careers, also perpetrators of this behavior?

A: “I don’t know, because we never asked that question, ‘have you ever done this to another woman?’ I would say from my own experience that I now realize I have been the perpetrator of some of those kinds of things, but I didn’t see myself as doing it.

“I think we don’t see ourselves doing some of these things; we see it in other people. These patterns really are deeply ingrained in us from childhood. They become unconscious; that’s the problem.

“But when I asked women in the study, they’d say, ‘I don’t know why we’re surprised. These are the same behaviors we saw in middle school, and the middle school bullies have just become adult women.’

“And so, if you ask women, they’re not surprised, and on the other hand, they are surprised, because they have a different expectation coming into the workplace.

“One of my goals in writing this book was to help us as women on an individual level become more aware of our own behavior.”

Question: We see many women making it in the corporate world. Are the Mary Barras, Meg Whitmans and Marissa Mayers of the world adopting these new models?

A: “My sense is that particular group are acting more like masculine managers. They have done what they had to do to get up there, they’ve made themselves into men and they’re doing very well.

“I do know that Sheryl Sandberg, for all the criticism she’s gotten, has made an effort to change the culture of Facebook in terms of getting more women up into senior management and changing culture.”

Question: How does your book differ from Sandberg’s “Lean In?”

A: “I like her book, and I think it’s made a huge contribution by getting conversations going that were not happening before. What’s different about my book is that I focus more on the macro — on the organizational structures and what it is that women can do together to change those structures. And hers is more focused on what individual women need to do.”

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