The Mean Girl Effect: 4 Steps to Overcome It


The importance of gender diversity in the workforce continues to be at the forefront of workforce research. There are a lot of conversations around the “glass ceiling” and the “good old boys network.” However, in her research on women in high-status roles, Brookings Executive Education (BEE) Women’s Leadership Network faculty member Professor Michelle Duguid presents an alternative we don’t hear much about. A surprise to many who think men are the sole barrier, Duguid’s findings suggest the following:

“When a woman is the only female member (referred to as the ‘token’ female) of a high-prestige work group and is asked to vote on another candidate for the group, she is much more likely to choose a male candidate than a female one. The research further suggests that this is likely because the token female feels her value within the group is threatened by the possible female entrant and what the newcomer’s credential represents.”

Duguid’s research divides the perceived threat into two competitive threats:

Threat 1: Another highly qualified woman could prove to be more valuable and potentially overshadow the existing female member of the group.

Threat 2: If the newcomer is less qualified than the incumbent female member of the group, her poor performance could be seen as validating negative stereotypes.

An additional concern included being afraid of appearing to favor other women. The “token” females often consider everything from their status, to pay, to position at stake in these situations.

“Organizational leaders really need to recognize these potential threats, as they could have a significant impact on the interaction between female group members, which could ultimately effect performance,” stated Duguid.

So how can organizations work to overcome these threats? According to Duguid the best way to address the issue are:

  1. Recognize that it is a possibility
  2. Create demographically diverse search committees to integrate high-prestige groups
  3. Facilitate women’s identification with their demographic group to help them manage their professional relationships, develop alliances and mentor relationships with other women
  4. Establish programs to counteract the negative effects of so few women in upper level management

This phenomenon is one we don’t hear about as much because there are still challenges to women reaching high-prestige positions. New research is starting to come out as more women reach these heights, but as they continue to do so in small numbers Duguid’s research brings up compelling arguments for continued efforts for diversity. In addition to previous research which has shown that organizations with more women in senior leadership positions, on average, far outperform those with fewer (Catalyst 2011: No News is Bad News: Women’s Leadership Still Stalled in Corporate America).

The full article appeared in: Organizational Behavior and Human Decisions Processes Journal, Vol. 116, No. 1, pages 104-115, September 2001. Additional material is from Olin Faculty Research pages.

Kimberly Hall is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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