It is a basic tenet of business-world feminism that women are more collegial than combative males, that sisterhood is powerful. But a thought-provoking, politically incorrect new book turns that conventional wisdom upside down. If colleagues are sisters, the book holds, then look out: the workplace will be fraught with rivalry and dysfunction, because women often betray and undermine one another. (Think Linda Tripp.) "Without fail, in 20 years of conducting conferences and workshops about gender differences in business, almost every participant we've encountered has acknowledged that women damage other women's career aspirations," write authors Pat Heim and Susan Murphy, with Susan Golant, of In the Company of Women: Turning Workplace Conflict into Powerful Alliances (Tarcher/Putnam; $24.95).
Heim and Murphy, veterans of FORTUNE 500 companies, say they decided to write the book when they realized that "women consistently failed to support other women and even actively undermined their authority and credibility."
Heim and Murphy are not shy about using words or taking positions that are bound to generate controversy. Take the term catfight, which they say refers to "the incontrovertible truth" that when women work together, they often clash. Catfights include spreading malicious gossip and rumors, divulging secrets and surreptitiously attacking one another in the presence of others, particularly bosses. In fact, the book was originally titled From Catfights to Colleagues until the authors ran into resistance to the C word. "Men and women are not the same," says Murphy. "We're different biologically, and we're different in personal relationships, and we're also different at work. But different can mean good."
The core idea of the book is the so-called Power Dead-Even Rule, the theory that for two women to forge a positive relationship, their self-esteem and power must be kept "dead even." When one woman gets more power--through a promotion, for example--it sets off tensions. Women sometimes try to redress those status differences, the authors say, through hostility and sniping. The cure for a troubled workplace is to deal honestly with these feelings of competition. The authors say, "From our observations, women are somewhat more comfortable with a powerful woman who plays down her importance than one who does not."
There are plenty of women who disagree with some of the book's conclusions, if not its premise. "The work force is like anything else," says lawyer Janie Smith of Business and Professional Women USA. "You're going to have people who get along, and people who don't get along, of both genders. My personal experience has been that for the most part, women are pretty supportive of one another." Besides, says Smith, what's considered bitchy in a woman is seen as assertive in a man. "If you could remove the gender, I'm not sure you would come to the same conclusion by observing the same behavior," she says. Psychologist Dorothy Cantor, the author of Women in Power: The Secrets of Leadership, agrees. "Women don't all get along with each other any more than men all get along with each other. There are so many other factors besides our gender that influence how we deal with each other."
But others find truth in what Murphy and Heim assert. Says Susan Estrich, University of Southern California law professor and author of Sex and Power, "There's not a successful woman today who doesn't know that sometimes women are your best friends and sometimes they're your worst enemies." Estrich, who was the first female president of the Harvard Law Review, recalls that there was only one female law professor at Harvard at that time. "She used to almost consistently vote against any woman whose name came up for a professorship," says Estrich. "She'd look at us and say 'There are no women qualified to teach here.'" Estrich believes that this sort of "queen bee" behavior results from "a sense of insecurity, a sense that your success will come at my expense, that somehow if I'm not the only woman in the room, they'll get rid of me altogether. And if I push too hard for other women, they will see me as a woman's woman, as opposed to being one of the boys."