The Sum – Meaning of the Week: #SisterCourage

“The first responsibility of leadership is the creation of meaning.”—Warren Bennis.

Word of the week is #SisterCourage.

As in be a sister. Have the courage to raise the issues that need to be tackled even if they are hard. Put sister and courage together with a strategic plan and act on it and you can create a movement that will change the world.

My Power Tool #7 is in fact “Create a movement.” But my love of movement building is not what prompted my decision to choose #SisterCourage as my word of the week.

What sent me off into the stratospheric level of aggravation that made me want to scream out that hashtagged #SisterCourage concept was this article in The Atlantic entitled “Why Do Women Bully Each Other at Work?”

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Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

Was Wooly Bully a Woman?

The recent New York Times article entitled “Backlash: Women Bullying Women” instantly reminded me of the 1960’s song, “Wooly Bully”*. Its logic was garbled and its presentation just plain silly, but it was nevertheless so entertainingly in tune with the culture of the day that it became a big hit.

Though the piece began by acknowledging that men are the majority (60%!) of workplace bulliers, that fact was quickly dismissed. Why wasn’t it the headline? Because it’s so obvious. It’s not a “man bites dog” story.

Instead, the reporter zeroed in on the finding that of women who do bully, 70% choose other women as their targets. Then the article proceeded to analyze this through the lens of a recurring cultural narrative, far too often embraced by even the New York Times despite evidence to the contrary, that women can’t get along, that women don’t support other women, that women are their own worst enemies when it comes to fostering workplace advancement.

These stories overlook important dynamics:

  • Men still determine the workplace culture in most instances, because they hold the majority of top power positions. We’re still in the midst of an unfinished revolution after all.
  • Though women now hold about half of management and professional positions, they tend to be the junior partners and when it comes to the top positions with the most clout, women lag far behind men: for example, still just 15% of Fortune 500 top officers and board members. So plain and simple, the men at the top have more choices of whom to bully.
  • Bullies will always pick on those with less power. And since more women work in the lower echelons of power (who still holds the majority of administrative assistant jobs, for example?), women who are more likely to hold the lower-status management positions are not likely to bully someone with more power, but rather to pick on someone closer to their own size if they are the bullying kind.
  • People who are oppressed tend to oppress others. That is the behavior they have learned from the dominant culture.
  • One highly effective way the prevailing culture can keep women in their traditional place, and men can keep their traditional power, is to belittle women; that is, to keep these stories of the lack of female cooperation perpetually bubbling like warm yeast sponge.

So what’s the big story that women, who are less powerful already than men, are more likely to bully other women if indeed they bully someone? It’s a statistical artifact.

This doesn’t make it right, nor am I in any way condoning bullying, but a look at these factors does begin to point us to where we need to go to correct the problem.

And, wait, there’s more to consider: studies of management decision making groups have found that where there are more women, there is actually better behavior, better decisions, and less corruption.

In “Women Matter,” a study published in 2007 by McKinsey &Co., the management consultants, asserts that companies employing at least 30% female executives–not just a token woman here or there–perform better than all-male outfits. Female managers are more likely than men to make collaborative decisions, to behave as role models and to consider the ethical consequences of their acts, McKinsey’s study found. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to make decisions on their own and then order the troops to carry them out.

Now tell me, why isn’t this the story grabbing the New York Times headlines? Because it is revolutionary, whereas the “women bully women” story is just titillating–like female Jello wrestling, or “The L-Word”.

Cultural myths, whether true or not, are hard to change. That’s why when I speak to women’s professional and leadership groups, I tell them they have the responsibility to create a new narrative. I encourage them to act with what I call Sister Courage.

Sister Courage applies movement building principles to making positive change in the workplace, and it has three parts. First, be a sister proactively–ask for help when you need it and reach out to other women when they need you. Second, have courage to talk about the workplace problems that need to be addressed; this can be done in professional and appropriately assertive ways by marshalling facts and offering proposals. Passive aggression gets you nowhere. And finally, join together for greater influence using the Sister Courage techniques of movement building that I teach. This behavior is how to make the workplace more conducive to productivity and humanity and to lessen the probability that anyone, male or female, will become either the perpetrator or the recipient of bullying.

And that’s no bull.

*Here for your viewing pleasure in all their silly glory, Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs singing “Wooly Bully”.

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Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.