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A dangerous perception

Dealingwithtiie glass ceiling

Psychologist finds that women believe other women are obstacles

By Peter J. McDonnell, M D

W omen, as we all know, historically have been under- represented in many professions

and especially in leadership roles. The "old boys' club," in which male superiors support and advance male em- ployees while oppressing women, results in the so-called glass ceiling, in which women find they often are unable to rise to positions of influence and authority within an organization. The solution is to identify capable women who can assume leadership roles, because they will serve as mentors and role models for young women in the company/medical or law practice/aca- demic department, and ensure that women are offered chances for develop- ment and advancement at least as actively as men. In effect, an "old girls' club" now will serve the same function for women tor which the old boys' club is famous.

At least this is the conventional wis- dom. It always has made good sense to me, seems completely logical, and I be- lieve to at least some degree reflects the philosophy of many organizations (in- cluding my own university). But it seems that conventional wis- dom may be wrong. In the February issue of Psychology Today, clinical psychologist Judith Sills, PhD, presents a fascinating analysis of tbe perceptions of young women in the workplace who "say that other women in power are holding them back." According to Dr. Sills, women are less likely than men to mentor younger women. Some men, we are told, are will- ing to reach out to and mentor young te- male colleagues (the right thing to do) be- cause they believe that women are weak and in need of help (the wrong reason). I recommend this article to you. It is provocatively titled, "Catfight in the boardroom: Do women hold other women back?" Whether reality or perception, writes Dr. Sills, office pres- sures can make women unco- operative.

Vignettes include the following:

• A gentleman recently complained

that, although his private club had com- mitted itself to increasing female mem- bership, the admissions committee had thus far been unsuccessful. "No matter which woman is proposed," he said, "some other woman blackballs her."

• Two women are comparing career

trajectories, one complaining that she was stalled for 2 years, until she finagled a lateral move. "What was the problem?" "Woman boss."

Senior women at best are neutral and at worst obstruct the career development of younger women.

Common survey finding

Apparently, surveys of women in the workplace consistently reveal that, rather than being perceived as the advocates of junior women employees via the "old girls' club," senior women at best are neutral and at worst obstruct the career development of younger women. Dr. Sills writes: "A woman's worst workplace enemy? Another woman. Women, it is widely felt, hold other women back. Is there validity to this per- ception? I haven't seen data to prove it's true, but the fact that it is a common survey finding is powerful in itself. Women blocking other women is a dangerous perception. It reinforces some inchoate portrait of the woman execu- tive as insecure bitch, easily threatened, overly emotional, less able to focus on achievement because she is preoccupied with squelching younger talent."

Some observations

Being neither a psychologist nor some- one who has researched this area, I can- not pretend to settle the question of

All the Clinical News in Sight

whether women in positions of author- ity, in general, interfere with the career advancement of other women. Having observed several women in leadership positions (whether faculty, nursing staff, or administrative staff) in the three academic departments in which I have worked, my conclusion is that some women are effective mentors/role models/advocates for other women, whereas some women seem to be terri- ble in this role. But exactly the same can be said for male leaders. One hopes there are a lot more of the good leaders to further the development of junior people, male or female. Wherever the truth lies in terms of perception versus reality, one conclusion I draw is that it is a false assumption that simply putting women into positions of authority will eliminate the glass ceiling for women newly entering the work force under these women leaders. Rather, it seems to me that all employ- ees, male and female, should be enrolled in programs of mentoring and leader- ship training. This approach does not rely on women feeling responsible for helping members of their own sex out of shared bonds of "sisterhood" nor on senior men helping women because they perceive them to be weak. If you run a large practice or organi- zation, how have you addressed this issue?OT

Peter J. McDonnell, MD

is director of The Wilmer Eye Institute, The Johns Hopkins

University School of Medicine, BaHimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times. He can be reached at


Maumenee Building,


N. Wolfe St.,

Baltimore, MD 21287-9278 Phone; 443/287-1511 Fax: 443/287-1 514 E-mail; pmcdonn

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