Women need to stick together and mentor each other to success

Wednesday March 18 2020

As a follow-up to my article last week, in which I talked about how women are often penalised for being successful, I received feedback from some readers who saw a glaring blind spot in my argument.

I based my arguments on a chapter from Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, in which she talks about success and likeability being positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. Society does not like successful women because they exhibit masculine characteristics such as ambition, aggressiveness, drive and strength.

A friend called and told me that while he liked the article, he found it a little ‘wanting’. He said I failed to address a critical aspect of this matter: most of this aggression against women comes from fellow women. He then dropped the cliché ‘women-are-their-own-worst-enemies’, implying that women don’t even like each other, so why are you asking us to like them?

So I did a little digging and found a tome of research dedicated to female rivalry, either in the workplace or in general society. The biological term is sexual selection. A lot of research has been dedicated to this intrasexual competition, especially amongst human females. Psychologists have focused on two main competition strategies; self-promotion and the derogation of rivals. Our issue falls in the second category, which is basically making the other woman look bad, especially to the opposite sex. The derogation of rivals is often manifested in either direct or indirect aggression, but most human females prefer indirect aggression that employs the oldest tactic in the book: gossip.

This might explain why women neither like nor support each other, and why a significant amount of aggression towards successful females emanates from fellow women. Some feminists might argue that this is patriarchal propaganda but the research tells a different story.

Professors Allison S. Gabriel, Marcus M. Butts and Michael Sliter published their research findings on the same in a 2018 issue of The Journal of Applied Psychology, saying “women report experiencing more incivility from other women than from men” – not to mean that men did not experience workplace incivility from fellow men.


This female cattiness, backstabbing and gossip against fellow women has formed fodder for management literature. A common feature is the ‘queen bee syndrome’, which was first coined by scholars G.L. Staines, T.E. Jayaratne, and C. Tavris in 1974. It is a derogatory term used to refer to women in senior positions deliberately dissociating themselves from their gender and undermining the rise of younger females.

If you look at all this research, you begin to see why “women are their own enemies’– a phrase I completely dislike and disagree with – makes sense to many critics. But this need not be the case. I will give you two reasons why it is in our best interests to support each other.

First, there are too few of us at the top. Globally, there are only six female CEOs (7 per cent) in the FTSE 100 companies (Financial Times Stock Exchange companies) and 33 (6.6 per cent) female CEOs in the Fortune 500 companies. Closer home, research published in November 2019 by Equileap, in partnership with New Faces New Voices and Nairobi Securities Exchange on Gender Equality in Kenya: Assessing 60 Leading Companies on Workplace Equality shows that women account for 23 per cent of board members of publicly listed companies, an improvement from 21 per cent in 2017. Seven companies (12 per cent) have female CEOs. These are: BOC Kenya, British American Tobacco Kenya, DTB Kenya, Eveready East Africa, KenGen, Limuru Tea and STANLIB Fahari I-REIT.

The second reason we need to stick together is simply that supporting each other works wonders. A study conducted by two professors, Tara Dennehya and Nilanjana Dasguptaa from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Massachusetts, found that female mentorship encouraged a sense of belonging, motivation and confidence among the female engineering workforce.

The paper notes that, “female mentors promoted aspirations to pursue engineering careers by protecting women’s belonging and confidence. Greater belonging and confidence were also associated with more engineering retention.” Simply put, when women support each other, it builds confidence among the younger women and helps in retention of women in the workplace.

While there has been a lot of progress, these dismal numbers mean that women are not represented at the high tables that matter most. And until we encourage women to stick together, we will always remain a minority when and where our presence matters most.

The writer is the director of the Innovation Centre at Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications. The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own.