By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/6/2010 11:25:51 AM ET 2010-07-06T15:25:51

Women helping other women achieve their career goals just doesn’t make for good TV.

During the “The Real Housewives of New York City” reunion show last month, two of the housewives, Alex McCord and Jill Zarin, were engaged in what can only be called bitchy behavior.

McCord: “Every time you feel threatened, whether it is by me or anyone else, any time we have something or get something you want or you feel wronged by us, you fight back and you fight back dirty, you go to the gossip columns, you back stab. We’re talking about you calling me ugly.”

Zarin: “I said that you were channeling the devil. I wasn’t calling you ugly.”

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These two successful career women, beyond their “Real Housewives” fame — McCord works in design and retail operations and Zarin is marketing director for the family fabric business — seem hellbent on undermining each other. The cattier they get, the more the cameras zoom in on the two.

It’s a very public and extreme display of behavior that has long played out between women at work, in friendships, and throughout their lives, said Joan Rosenberg, a psychologist and co-author of “Mean Girls, Meaner Women.”

“What are they modeling? Women treating other women poorly as a way to solve problems,” she said. “We are looking at something deeply embedded in women, psychologically, culturally and socially.”

Indeed, a recent example of this is former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, the Republican Senate candidate in California who will face a tough battle against the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Barbara Boxer. During a TV interview, instead of attacking Boxer’s political record, she went after the senator’s hair.

“God, what is that hair? Soooo yesterday,” she said, thinking her microphone was off.

Tearing each other down
With women holding so few key political roles and leadership positions in corporate America, you would think they would build each other up rather than tear each other down. Unfortunately, many women say we still have a long way to go.

A 2007 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that37 percent of the U.S. workforce reported being bullied at work. Among those who mistreat their co-workers, women were more likely to target other women (71 percent), compared men who bully other men (54 percent.)

“It’s a dirty little secret among women that we don’t support one another,” said Susan Shapiro Barash, who teaches gender studies at Marymount Manhattan College and is author of “Tripping the Prom Queen: The Truth About Women and Rivalry” and “Toxic Friends: The Antidote for Women Stuck in Complicated Friendships.”

Barash believes that because we live in what is still a male-dominated society, women are apt to feel like there’s not enough to go around for them, which feeds jealousy and resentment among women fighting for a smaller piece of the pie. “If you’re the gender that yields the power, you don’t have to feel that way,” she said.

Based on her research, women are more apt to help other women if there is a larger difference in age because they feel less threatened. “I found that women would not befriend women who were eight or 10 years younger than them because of the competition. But someone who’s 28, if they were 58, they wouldn’t see that threat because they were going to be gone by the time that woman rose through the ranks.”

New at mentoring
Male mentors seem to edge out female mentors when it comes to helping proteges climb the ladder of success, according to a study by the department of management at the Great Valley School of Graduate Professional Studies at Penn State University.

“We found male mentors do a better job providing career development than female mentors,” said John Sosik, a management and organization professor at the university who co-authored the study.

Many women are still new at the mentoring game, said Mary Stutts, author of “The Missing Mentor: Women Advising Women on Power, Progress and Priorities.” “Many of them have never been mentored or had formal career development planning.”

Women also often feel like they don't have enough power to be of any real assistance, she added. “Women often underestimate or give away their power. They take the approach of ‘Just keep your head down and do a good job’ and success and advancement will just happen for you. They don't negotiate for the work experiences and projects that will enable them to move up and achieve the success they desire.”

But women appeared to do a better job than men when it came to role modeling, Sosik said. “When it comes to living up to company values and being admired for what they achieved, women come out higher.”

It’s also an issue of time.

Elura Nanos, an attorney and a managing partner of Morange, a educational firm for law students, has seen tons of women, including herself, not helping other women but doesn’t think it’s about being “bitchy.”

“Many women are too busy to help each other,” she said. “I own a business, work full time, I have two small children, do charity work, hobbies. I have a wonderful husband, but he doesn’t do half the amount of things I do.”

As an attorney, Nanos said she’s constantly being asked to help others but finds herself being strategic about whom she helps and how it could help her in the long run. “I think that for men in the business world, it’s really more implicit that if I do something for you, you will do something for me. But women don’t operate that way.”

Perceived undermining
What causes so many women consternation is perceived backbiting and undermining, as is played out in front of a national audience in shows such as “Real Housewives.” Not knowing how to manage anger feeds into this problem, said Rosenberg.

“We are not taught to manage those emotional experiences within our selves,” she explained. “So as we age, culturally our anger is not taken seriously, so we have two choices: We can turn anger against ourselves, and that’s where we see eating disorders, self mutilation, any kind of addictive behavior like shopping or substance use. Or it turns outward with hostility, undermining, biting behavior towards other women.”

Maybe it’s stereotypes that get us thinking a women’s reaction to anger is different from a man’s because women are supposed to be “more communal and less aggressive,” said Beth Livingston, assistant professor of human resources at Cornell University.

“This is a double-edged sword because the same behaviors that a man enacts, when enacted by a woman, are often more memorable and trigger a backlash of sorts against the ‘offending’ woman,” she said. “Men and women can enact the exact same behaviors, but it's seen as more hostile coming from a woman, likely because of the stereotypes we already hold.”

Naomi Moneypenny, vice president of research and technology for ManyWorlds Inc., a management advisory and software company, had a female mentor during her first job, which was in publishing.

“She had made it in a male-dominated world, everyone was scared of her, the term battle-ax was frequently defined by her,” Moneypenny recalled. But, she added, “since I delivered the results she wanted, and after all, that's what matters in a business, she really took me under her wing and through her guidance I began to get more exposure to senior folks in the company to listen to my ideas.”

Moneypenny believes the whole idea that women don’t help women is an “old wives tale.” She pointed to a quote she heard Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, make when she was at a women’s conference last year:

“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

Based on the “Real Housewives” franchise alone, hell is probably getting a bit overcrowded right about now.

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

Video: Fiorina on Boxer: Her hair is ‘so yesterday’

  1. Closed captioning of: Fiorina on Boxer: Her hair is ‘so yesterday’

    >>> meredith.

    >> now to that open mike incident for california republican senate candidate carly fiorina . take a look at what she was overheard saying just before a television interview on wednesday.

    >> lauder saw barbara boxer briefly on television this morning and said what everyone says -- god, what is that hair? so yesterday.

    >> that's the risk of those open mikes . you never know.

    >> i can only imagine what would happen if someone -- oh, my gosh here.

    >> zip it!

Vote: Are women unwilling to help each other advance their careers?

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