Women in the Workplace: Stop Dicking Each Other Over or The Mythical High Road

June 5, 2010

When women suffer professionally at the hands of men, figuratively, we yell sexism.  But at the hands of our sisters, what should we yell?

I once attended a panel discussion for and about women in a particular industry.  It isn’t pertinent which industry, only that the speakers, the moderator, and most of the audience consisted of women.

I don’t recall the question, but in response, a panelist shared an anecdote about the time a man took credit for her idea.  The crowd went full-on rhubarb in collective, sympathetic agreement and the conversation degenerated into a Men-Hold-Us-Back extravaganza.

I’m sure the brave males in the audience were regretting their decisions to be progressive.

I recall thinking these women would be better served defending themselves from women and men alike.

Equal opportunity, and all that.

I was so fortunate to have fantastic, mentoring bosses when I first started working.  I’ve written about great lessons from Andrea and will write about Sam (a he-mentor. Gasp.) very soon.  As a result of these positive experiences, I wasn’t really prepared for what I have witnessed.

Jan* used to show up at work crying about her boyfriend who had a drinking problem.  She would insist that we keep the door locked because he might storm in and hurt her. Once, she said she was scared to go home.  She put her work on my desk because she was too upset to do it. She would wail, “Don’t you understand!?! I’m homeless!  I HAVE NO HOME!”  It was always something.  By the way, Jan was 45, and I was 23.  I have to believe that you were expecting the opposite.

I never said anything negative about her behavior.  I tried to take the high road and simply put the work back on her desk and walk away.  She in turn told our boss that I was being unprofessional.


Years later, another situation found me navigating landmines.  A new lady boss, Jane*, came in to the department and told me behind closed doors that she felt her male boss was deferring to her male counterpart too much.  She needed me to help her gain respect in the department.  She wanted to be sure that she spoke for our team in meetings.  The projects I worked on should be presented by her.  The traveling I had done for a year would be done by her from now on.  It was better for our team this way.

I was naive.

I knew I’d been had when I overheard her telling her boss that I simply didn’t participate and didn’t want to travel anymore and that I should be demoted.  Ohhhhh.  When I quit the next week, the head of HR wanted to know why and I simply said that things had changed in the department. It was just time to move on.  I thought I was being professional, taking the high road.  Leaving gossip and emotion out of it.  A year later, I found out that she had told everyone she’d fired me.

Here’s the thing about the high road.  It’s bullshit.

I’m convinced that the person who invented this concept was an asshole who wanted honorable people to keep their mouths shut so that he/she could travel more freely on the low road.

These are two separate issues, hence the two titles.  Both make me wonder what I could have done differently, but since I can’t do anything differently, I’ll just ready myself for future attacks.  Nowadays, I understand that it’s possible and necessary to stand my ground and defend myself without sounding overly emotional and defensive.  My side must be heard and must be conveyed effectively.  All in all, excellent learning experiences, both.

Oddly enough, I’ve never had an equally diabolical experience with male colleagues or bosses.  Yet.

*names have been changed to protect the lame.

21 Responses to “Women in the Workplace: Stop Dicking Each Other Over or The Mythical High Road”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Felicia Yonter, Felicia Yonter. Felicia Yonter said: New blog post: "Women in the Workplace: Stop Dicking Each Other Over" or "The Mythical High Road" http://pd.am/cby Eager for your comments […]

  2. Heidi Massey Says:

    I think you have written a wonderful description of some of the tricky navigations that people are sometimes experiencing in the work place. Something about women interacting with women makes SOME women feel like they can be more informal, get away with more and take advantage of a situation. My guess is you are so competent, that some people are intimidated and other people are happy to defer their responsibilities to you. I think we are all prepared for men to do crappy things because we have spent so much time talking and thinking about it. But what you described happening to you is probably pretty common…it just isn’t talked about as much. We women have been in the work place for a long time…but not as long as men, especially in higher positions. It takes time for issues to bubble up. I would guess that as we are there longer, these types of issues will begin to be discussed more.

    Don’t let your experiences sour you on women in the workplace. There are some incredible women who can be extraordinary mentors…and now you, with your “battle scars” could be a great mentor as well.

    Thanks for the great post!

    • feliciacago Says:

      Thanks for the comment, Heidi. I believe that women who are willing to behave this way are equal opportunity offenders, but justify their treachery toward women as a necessary tactic to compete with men (although the first example was certainly not strategic, only sad).

      I try not to inject myself into the “why” in order to avoid dismissing this to the “she was just jealous/threatened/insecure/angry” because I can never fix that. What I can fix is how I react.

      I will never let this bad behavior sour me on my sisters. Fortunately, I know too many amazing, supportive, nurturing, inspiring role models and will forever strive to be more like them.


  3. Genie Says:

    Boy does this bring back memories. I have been on both sides of this issue. I have been the one to dish out the bad behavior and I have been the one to quietly accept the abuse. I have to say, being the one to dish it out made me much unhappier.

    When I was the stereotypical backstabbing, ladder climbing female employee/supervisor, it was at a time of intense personal unhappiness for me. I’ve always struggled with depression and anxiety since childhood, so whenever I felt threatened or felt taken advantage of, my first reaction was to lash out. I was the gossip spreader and the clique builder for many years. To say I was a queen bee would be wrong. I didn’t have any friends because I was just so mean all the time.

    I finally took a long hard look at myself and realized that my personal reputation and my professional reputation was going to precede me where ever I go and that being known for integrity and kindness was much more important. I’ve been much happier with myself ever since.

    Do I have relapses into the old behavior? Once in a while, but I work really hard to think positive things about people now and keep the judging, critical thoughts at bay.

    As for women in the work place, it sounds more like these women you experienced need to get into therapy because they were 7 shades of crazy. In the end, people like that either change their behavior for the better or they collapse under the weight of their own negativity. What you did by walking away was preserve your own happiness. That was the right thing to do. Engaging would have not only ruined your professional reputation, but also destroyed your own sense of calm and happiness.

    Great post and I will be reading your blog from now on! Thanks. -G

    • feliciacago Says:

      Genie, I’ve known you for a short while and can absolutely NOT imagine you as anything other than kind and loving. If you indeed made the change you describe, then you are even more incredible than I already believed. Bravo!

  4. Anna Tarkov Says:

    This is so true. Even though I’m not a businesswoman per se, I HAVE worked in corporate environments or other types of offices and have found that women are more difficult to work for and to work with. Of course this isn’t universally true and men can be no picnic also. But I think it’s definitely the case that women are more gossipy, more insecure, etc and that all this and more contributes to them behaving badly at work towards both subordinates and co-workers. It’s also true that this phenomenon (if that’s what we should call it) has no name like “sexism” or “racism” or “ageism.” And yet it can be just as insidious. I think most women don’t like to admit that it exists, because we’d all like to think of ourselves as good, decent people who would NEVER stab someone in the back at work or undermine them or gossip about them.

    • feliciacago Says:

      Oh, the gossipy, hysterical, emotional stuff that is equated with women in the workplace is a whole other headache for those of us to avoid that. I do not decorate my cubicle with pictures of my family or drawrings from kids (no, I won’t change my mind if I have some), and I don’t regale others with minutiae about my personal life. I just dunt.

      And of course, because I don’t participate, I’m the one being difficult.

      • Anna Tarkov Says:

        Great point. I think it’s extremely important to separate the personal from the professional, especially for women. I too am a proponent of not bringing your personal life to work, whether it’s in the form of family photos or anything else. I have also never brought any kind of baked goods, candy or any other kind of food to work unless it would be consumed only by myself. It’s like I knew instinctively that women who do that aren’t exactly shooting for the corner office.

  5. allie Says:

    Seriously, why do we women eat each other up…in ALL aspects of life? Great post!

  6. Dan Says:

    *shiver* I hate the nasty side of office life and all the politics etc.

    You obviously learned from your earlier experience. Eg calling out that guy out in the Grafton – your side was sure heard and conveyed effectively!

    • feliciacago Says:

      Ha! I forgot about that. Drunkos beware: You mess with my friends, you get Hulk Felicia.

      • GourmetRambler Says:

        I want to hear that story!

      • GourmetRambler Says:

        I find it easier to get along with men in my day to day life, to be honest. It is probably because I am more akin to them than other women. I am a straight shooter, tell it like it is, abhore gossip, and am of the opinion that the one opinion that matters in the long run is my own. By a cruel twist of fate I ended up in a profession where I deal with women 100% of the time. Oy. Talk about your 7 shades of crazy. However challenging, we have to face these issues whether we like it or not. So here are my 2¢. I will not alter my personality to fit someone else’s mold. And while I agree that walking g away is better for preserving one’s personal calm, I think that if the situation warrants it, we need to speak up, calling the offenders out on their bad behavior. Hoe else will they learn? They will go on doing it to other pepple

  7. Kevin Says:

    Hi Felicia, I have been in the corporate jungle for over 25 years and have seen all kinds of political abuse, mistrust, back stabbings, ego driven decisions and late TPS reports and I still believe in the high road to some degree. It may not seem right in the short term, but I think it works in the long run. I’ve been told it’s the wrong thing to do in business and personal lives, that I let people walk over me, don’t get my say, etc., but I’ve always believed that those who act a fool will be found out eventually and that those are their problems and not mine…Karma. I know, a bit naive, but it works for me. Still, that’s not to say that there aren’t lessons to learn and times when one should stand up for him/herself, but when it crosses over to behaving like the lame with whom you write, I don’t think anyone wins.

    I recently attended a very heated meeting among the VPs at my company and it got to the point where one VP said to another, “Are we going to have to get down to our boxers to settles this?” Besides the horrible image burned into my mind given the two dude in question, I had to laugh that it got to that point. But, hey, maybe that would have been the way to solve it. Get those two into The Octagon and the first one to tap out or go unconscious loses. That story really doesn’t have much to do with your post except to illustrate how lame men can be in the workplace, too. (like you needed an example to remind you of that fact).

  8. Felicia:

    Great post. The high road is often the road that does not resolve an issue. In my business, we tall about avoidance as a popular conflict management technique. The high road is just a euphemism for avoidance. Ignoring the issue limits all parties involved. Having a fully transparent conversation that addresses, in a fair and civil manner, the conflict, is a better strategy. Each party has a chance to be heard, to discuss feelings and facts, and to move on. They can still disagree, but, in the end, most people just want to be heard.


    • Kevin Says:

      Tom, I agree with you. My definition of the high road isn’t necessarily avoidance, but it sometimes can be. I think transparent conversation in a fair and civil manner is a great strategy and, in my opinion, can be considered the high road, too.

  9. Magda Says:

    The work place hierarchy is quite synonymous with ancient Rome social status hierarchy.
    People will always choose what is best for them and what will help them climb to the top (and remain there).

    I think this kind of behavior is almost instinctual and can not be avoided unless everyone at the company is on the same level but with different roles.

    Work fulfills the primary needs of shelter and food, so people will do whatever they have to in order to keep their own job.

    The only thing I would say about women, is that they are sneakier and take things to a more personal level than man. As in they are more inclined to attack a person rather than their performance.

  10. GourmetRambler Says:

    OK, I do know how to spell. 😉 Sorry, hit the button before proof reading. LOL

  11. Heidi Massey Says:

    This conversation is so interesting because I spent time this morning on a virtual conference on collaboration in the social change sector. So different than what you have experienced Felicia. At some point, on this crazy out of control planet of ours, we have to decide that we are all on the same team if we want to survive. So we need to find ways to work together and we need to learn that 1+1 DOES NOT =2 in the work place. Same with nonprofits-when 2 fundraise together they raise more than each by themselves. We need to get to the point where the bulk of the population realizes that by playing a meaningful part of a team and being helpful to others, ultimately helps you. *sigh* One day perhaps…

  12. FINALLY getting to read this post! And let me just say, bravo lady!

    Even before I was in the corporate world I noticed the difference between men and women in business. I had never had a male boss that wasn’t wonderful to work for, but the females? Holy crap, it was always hell. I used to ask myself why all the time. I felt as if I was betraying my fellow sisters because I had come to the conclusion that female bosses sucked.

    As I gained more knowledge and experience in business and in life I realized that it was because of emotion. Women are more emotional than men and that is a fact of human nature. The women that are in business and can actually take the emotion out of the job… those are the ones who are successful for the long term and have the respect of everyone around them.

    Now don’t get me wrong, there are also men that have this issue. I’ve met them. It was actually a man that inspired my guest post on Alicia Kan’s site: There’s No Crying In Baseball: Separating Emotions From Business – http://www.thingstheydont.com/2010/01/theres-no-crying-in-baseball-separating.html

    But due to the curse of emotion that mother nature gave to us women, we are in the majority of sucky bosses.

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