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Do women sabotage other women in business, and, if so, what can be done about it? We asked two experts with differing views for advice. "Women are relationship-focused," says Cheryl Dellasega, associate professor at Penn State University College of Medicine at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and co-author of Girl Wars: 12 Strategies That Will End Female Bullying. "Early on, women learn their connections with each other can be very powerful or very damaging." Dellasega believes women who learn to get their way through aggression as girls continue these behaviors throughout life. "They may not even be aware of how sabotaging their behavior is."
According to Julie Overholt, a professional certified executive coach and certified behavioral analyst in Plano, Texas, sabotage is committed by anyone-male or female-who feels powerless. "Women running businesses are not powerless and, in my experience, are far less inclined to sabotage other women," says Overholt. "Women entrepreneurs understand the real, long-term value of building relationships instead of burning bridges."
For her next book, due out in 2005, Dellasega spoke with many women in business and found women often sabotage other women out of a belief that "if you succeed, it takes something away from me." Sabotage can manifest itself in many ways, including "failing" to pass along opportunities that might benefit another woman or sharing them with her competitors instead. Saboteurs may also speak disparagingly about the other woman or choose not to refer clients or business to her.
Overholt says if a woman thinks she has been sabotaged, it could be because, in trying to understand what she is experiencing, she may be looking for evidence in situations and observations that validate her suspicion she is being sabotaged. "If they need to believe that women sabotage women to justify their own experience, then that's what they will find."
Whether the sabotage is real or perceived, both Overholt and Dellasega have advice for women business owners who believe they have been sabotaged. "Honor your fear, but keep in mind that fear is a caution sign, not a red light, so proceed with caution," says Overholt. "Ask questions of people you respect and who respect you. Listen carefully to their replies. Look dispassionately at the evidence you gather about how women business owners behave toward other women entrepreneurs. Does the evidence support your fear? Or does it lead to a different conclusion?" She also advises looking within and asking yourself if you have some responsibility in what you are experiencing.
Dellasega suggests several ways to protect yourself from sabotage: Surround yourself with a solid network of women you know from experience to be positive resources and great supporters. And get to know other women you're thinking of associating with before sharing ideas and connections.
If you feel you have been sabotaged by another woman in business, Dellasega says sometimes the best thing to do is to rise above it and turn to your personal and professional network for support. "There can be legal options for restitution, but these remedies take time," explains Dellasega. "For women, the emotional connotations attached to sabotage often do the most damage." In speaking with women who feel they have been sabotaged, she heard less about the material damage and more about the pain of betrayal.
Overholt suggests if you believe another woman has sabotaged you, you should be open, honest and direct in questioning the woman. "Often, we find other people are acting out of their needs and really not thinking about us. Any harm they do us is unintentional," she says. "Calling it to that woman's attention in a forthright manner is a good way to find out her true intention."