Mean girls: Our own worst enemy?

“There is a special place in Hell for women who don’t help other women.”  Madeleine Albright

I have participated in a number of leadership training seminars targeted for women in academic medicine.  These seminars spend lots of time helping us career plan, helping us communicate more effectively, helping us run meetings effectively.  What they don’t teach us is the sociology of organizations and leadership and one of the lingering barriers to women’s success: the role that relational aggression can play in women’s career development.

What is relational aggression? Quite simply, it’s manipulation of someone in a way intended to damage their relationships with others.  While it’s behavior that may be displayed by men or women, in American culture it’s a predominantly female behavior.  It consists of isolating someone socially through whisper campaigns.  It preys on the desire for connection and belonging.  It compounds workplace stress, something little needed in some of the environments where it is best described (nursing, I’m looking at your sisterhood on that one– stop eating your young!).  It’s often insidious, smoldering…and incredibly hurtful.  The most damaging piece of relational aggression is that those who see it for what it is often stand on the sidelines, afraid of becoming the next target.

Ladies, admit it:  You’ve either experienced it or witnessed it.  Gentlemen, I suspect you’ve had the opportunity to see these things occur as well.  This isn’t unfamiliar territory, but it is dangerous territory.

The reasons for relational aggression are likely complex, myriad, and something I will dig into when/ if I am reincarnated as a sociologist whose work focuses on power dynamics (because really, it is ALL about power).  What is perhaps more important is to be cognizant that it exists, and to figure out how we nip this phenomenon.

Organizational interventions can certainly help if it’s a pervasive part of culture.  In academic surgery we don’t have enough powerful women (yet!) for relational aggression to be a real danger in most settings.  Where we can have an impact in places where women are still a minority is to be individually accountable for our behavior and to hold our friends and colleagues accountable as well.

What is my commitment to help halt relational aggression?

  • As a leader, to insure that those who need access to me have that access
  • As a peer, to insure awareness of opportunities for participation and leadership
  • As a human, to not get sucked into smear campaigns and dirty gossip.
  • As a friend, to continue the work that a couple of colleagues and I have begun of nominating one another- or other Worthy Women whom we identify- for awards and opportunities.

It’s all about valuing people and their contributions, really.  I’ve never aspired to be a Mean Girl, and there is no time when that’s been more important than now for me.


Leadership perceptions and feedback: The Gender Gap

Last week this recent Fortune piece started circulating via email amongst a group of women surgeon colleagues of mine.  Included in the email chain was one friend asking, “Do you think this would be abrasive if I sent it to my Chair?”  and another lamenting about comments during resident evaluations with similar descriptors sneaking in.

For the Fortune article, the author acquired a convenience sample of performance review of men and women in tech; she found that the men were more likely to only receive constructive feedback, and the men were less likely to receive critical feedback.  The key differentiator?  Feedback based upon personality rather than behaviors.  While only 2 men received personality-based feedback, 71 (of 94) women did.  While I’ll blog soon about providing behaviorally oriented feedback, my discussion today is predicated on the previously identified “Double-Bind” dilemma that is faced by women in positions of leadership.

The 2007 Catalyst report that described the Double-Bind identified three main themes about women in leadership roles.    First, women struggle to navigate a narrow middle space between being too soft or too tough.  The bandwidth of “acceptable” behaviors for powerful women is indeed quite narrow.  Second, women leaders face higher demands for competence than their male colleagues.  I’ve said more than once that to truly succeed as a woman in surgery you have to be able to run faster, jump higher, and achieve more; being “average” is not an option for women in surgical training, nor for women in leadership roles.  Finally, women leaders are often perceived as either likable or competent.  We struggle mightily to reconcile these two descriptions, and in many ways it relates directly to being too soft or too tough as a boss.

How do we improve the perception of women as leaders?  The “Ban Bossy” campaign is probably a start, simply because it raises the issue to a level of awareness.  We mandate that evaluation is behaviorally anchored, not personality-based, unless personality issues at hand truly impair someone’s effectiveness in an irretrievable manner (e.g. a personality flaw that results in them yelling and throwing instruments in the OR- ironically, behavior that is disproportionately male). The recognition that cultures, particularly in male-dominated professions, remain conflicted about “whether, when, and how” women should exercise authority is important, but it’s ultimately only half of the battle.  We all need to speak up when we hear those subtle slights being made, and being conscious of them is the first step to generating change.

The truth is that many women ascend into leadership positions because they perceive that they have a responsibility to effect change.  To be an effective change agent, relationships play a tremendous role.  As women leaders, it’s our responsibility to remain purposive in our roles, using those leadership roles as a bully pulpit.  If we’re being placed into roles where we get an audience, we should- and must- use those roles to educate about the need for change.  That’s really the crux of leading, regardless of gender.


(Note:  I would LOVE to figure out a way to study women academic surgeon’s retention/ promotion/ tenure letter content to see if this holds in my own profession.  Anyone want to collaborate?)