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Women & Power

Why do Powerful women treat less powerful women badly…

By Patti Wood

Many years ago I moved to be near my best friend who was terminally ill. It was a difficult time. Before the move I had been teaching body language and other communication classes at Florida State and running a very successful speaking business. I loved my college students and they loved me. I know it was so, because they would write down every word I said in class (and you wonder why professors get big egos). Many would stay after class, visit me in my office for hours and stop for a hug when they would see me on campus. I had wonderful relationships with my clients as well. I was respected and paid a great deal to speak, and participants would stay after a seminar or speech to shake my hand or visit. If I ran into clients or past participants in the small college town of Tallahassee, I was usually given the same warm friendly response.

Then I moved to the big city, so that I would have the flexibility to run to the hospital for my best friend when I needed to. That first year I chose not to take speaking engagements out of town while he was ill and instead took receptionist jobs through a temporary agency. The pay cut was significant. Instead of $500 an hour I made $7.50 for answering the telephone. Strangely enough, it didn’t bother me that much. What did bother me was how people treated me nonverbally. Inevitably I was at a desk at the entrance to the main entrance of the business. A few weeks before my first temp job I had been smiled at, listened to and hugged by the people I worked for. Sitting behind the receptionist desk, wearing the same clothes that I had worn as a speaker, I was shunned – by the women.

Yes, it was the women in the power positions or any woman who had a position higher than me, including secretaries, who treated me poorly. They would walk by my desk several times a day without even acknowledging my existence. In fact, if someone else was walking or standing in the area they would smile and often stop and chat, but never with me. Here were no hellos, no visiting time, no invitations to join them for lunch. And that wasn’t all. If they needed something from me, like telling them when a special visitor had arrived, sending out a piece of mail, or typing up something on short notice, they would come around the desk and stand over me, speaking in a condescending tone and making short, direct requests. They treated me like a thing not a person.

Occasionally one of the men in an office treated me that way but it was rare. The men generally said hello each day, returning my smile, stopping just to visit and asking me questions about my life. One of them might bring me a Coke if they went to the break room, and when we talked they would make eye contact and give me their full attention. They used a gentler method of communicating as if I had taught it to them. And they always spent a little time chatting before making a request (often with a question mark in their voice) and thanking me warmly. Now, this treatment was not necessarily entirely innocent back in those days. I was a young, twenty-something, short buxom blonde. They definitely flirted as well. But most of all they were kind and their body language recognized me as an individual. If this had happened in one office with a handful of people, perhaps this story would be unremarkable. But I was a temp for a year and worked in every kind of office, from small law and architectural firms to large corporations and manufacturing plants. And my observation was that this gender-based behavior pattern was consistent across the board, whether I temped for a day or for two months

What made women treat me so brusquely and defiantly? I think it much of it was the power difference. Women twenty years ago did not have much power in the office. So what little power they had they did not want to lose. If you had little power, then associating with the lowest status person in the office would make you appear less powerful by association. And then there was the power rush. Just like the next-to-the-youngest sibling likes to boss around the youngest sibling, because everyone else bosses them around, the women in the office like bossing around the only person in the office they could. It was an unpleasant revelation to me to be treated as a job title rather than for the person I was.

I wrote this story many years ago. My audience in my Gender Based Differences in Communication programs say it is still the case, The women in my Wharton School of Business class, “Women and Leadership’ say they find it to still be true. But my college audiences say they don’t think it will be true for them. Is it true in your work world? What do you think?