A Hostile Work Environment for Women at the Top

Colette Dowling, LCSW

Author of the following article on couples counseling and real love, NYC psychotherapist Colette Dowling, LCSW, has also written The Cinderella Complex: Women's Hidden Fear of Independence, a best seller in twenty-three languages, and other books on relationhip issues.

NY psychotherapist Colette Dowling, LMSW, author of the following article on the hostile work environment facing women at the top, has written eight books, including The Cinderella Complex, which was published in 23 languages.

We don't ordinarily think of women at the top as facing a hostile work environment. No, in the upper reaches of the corporate world a certain civility is thought to obtain. Men and women, high-powered and highly-paid, tender respect to one another. Discrimination is barely perceptible if it exists at all. At the top the playing field, at long last, levels.

That would be the fantasy. A personnel administrator with the Ford Foundation, whose particular interest is the smooth functioning of his company employees, was surprised to learn of the inequities that prevail even at the highest levels, and how, due to his own unconscious attitudes toward women, he himself was a perpetrator. He tells this story.

Two men and two women, strangers, embarked on a rafting trip on the Rouge River, in the state of Oregon. In their mid-fifties, all four had reached a certain level of maturity and expertise in their lives. They were participating in an Outward Bound program, an experience they expected would open up new vistas of self-knowledge.

At the start of the trip, as they learned the gear (a guide-instructor, much younger, is with them), divvied up the chores, and practiced on the calm of the river, their bodies becoming frozen from long bouts sitting around the rim of the raft with their feet in the middle of the raft and ankle-deep in cold water, they grew to be buddies. They liked one another. They spoke to one another with humor about the experience in which they were joined. John, the guide, was pleased, emphasizing over and over the importance to their safety of their functioning as a team. But as the rafting lessons got harder and their distance to the first rapids grew smaller, everything began to change.

Navigating a Tricky River

Actually, signs of a serious organizational shift between the men and the women had already taken place. A huge tightly rolled bag with all the team’s equipment had to be removed from the raft and taken uphill to the camp site. On their first night out, Marlene and Helen had each taken an end and begun carrying the big bag up the bank. Bill, a successful lawyer from Darien, ran over to them, yelling. “Hey, hold it. That’s too heavy for you.” He took the bag from them and slung it casually over his shoulder. “You shouldn’t try to do that heavy stuff,” he said.

“Anytime,” Marlene responded. You want to do the macho stuff be my guest, was her attitude. She was a recently divorced mother of five and a topnotch skier. Helen, president of the Fund Center, in Denver, was less ready to swallow Bill’s gallantry. “Well, it’s great to have these big strong men around, ain’t it though?” she commented, sarcastically.

That first night Bill and Robert, who was the Ford foundation guy, put up the tarpaulins under which the group would sleep. Helen and Marlene cleaned the ground and arranged the sleeping bags.

As the days passed, the four learned how to avoid the hidden rocks called “sleepers.” They were taught how to ride the “haystacks,” chopping waves that form at the outlet of the rapids. There were no seat belts to rely on, or even seats, for that matter. When Helen complained that she was getting tired, the men pooh-poohed it. “You should try the St. John in Maine,” Robert informed Helen. “Yeah,” Bill laughed. “This is nothing compared to Pike’s Peak.”

Right. Both men were tired though they would never have admitted it. They had already decided, privately, that if they should get into trouble out on the river Bill would “look after” Marlene and Robert would take care of Helen. Walking up a steep river bank to look at and evaluate the first rapids they were about to reach, Bill helped Marlene over the rocks, holding her elbow. Behind them, Helen commented to Robert, “Honestly, Marlene is not all that helpless.”

The role of the helmsman--a term the women objected to, so it was changed to “helms person”--became increasingly apparent. The four were taught that once they entered the rapids, the helms person would shout out commands rapidly and the rest would have to respond just as rapidly if they were to avoid hidden rocks, suck holes, boulders and other obstacles that could either flip the raft over or pull it under.

The team got through its first rapids fine, but the reality of the potential danger had fully sunk in. Each of them was expected to take turns as helms person. This prospect scared the men. When Marlene had been the helms person she’d kept shouting, at every new turn, “I can’t do it; I can’t do it.” The rest would shout out support, but to no avail. “I don’t know right from left,” Marlene would say. “One of you guys do it; you’re so much better.” The men didn’t trust the women to navigate safely.

As they approached Copper Canyon, the team needed a “hard right” command. Marlene, at the helm, gave a “hard left” command. Bill and Robert looked at one another in disgust. But Bill turned solicitous, asking Marlene, “What’s the matter, honey?”

“I don’t know my right from my left,” she replied. “You be the helms person.”

“Why don’t we write on the back of your hands ‘right’ and ‘left,’” he joked. But the next thing Bill and Robert knew, the women were actually doing it. Still, Helen was mad. “Is it really necessary to make a baby of her?” she asked.

“Of course not,” Robert said. “But she really doesn’t know right from left.”

The teamwork was unraveling. Bill and Robert proceeded subtly to take charge. “Bill and I would look at each other, and with very slight head shakes and grimaces we would indicate agreement that things were not going well at all,” Robert recalls. “We then felt free to take our own corrective measures, such as trying to steer the raft from our forward paddle positions, an almost impossible thing to do. Not only is running the raft from the front not at all helpful to the person at the helm, but also, if the helms person is not aware of the counter forces, the raft can easily turn around like a carousel.”

The men were so upset by what they perceived as the women’s incapacity to be leaders they made matters in a dangerous situation yet more dangerous. The atmosphere worsened as the trip progressed. By Day Five things were really falling apart. Everyone was anxious and silent as the raft approached a fast-moving chute. “At that time only a clear, concise, direct command and a rapid response would be of any use at all.”

But a woman was at the helm. Instead of a “hard right” command, which would have led them out of danger, they got no command at all. Marlene, at the helm, had frozen. The raft slid up on a big boulder, and in an instant, Robert remembers, “we flipped over like a flapjack on a griddle.’” The swift current pushed them in all directions. After cursing “that goddamned dumb Marlene, “ Robert spotted Bill nearby and the two of them went to rescue Marlene and Helen, whom they found grappling with paddles and gear they’d grabbed as the raft tipped over.

That was it. The men took over the rest of the trip. Even Helen agreed. “I just want to stay dry. You guys take the helm.” What had really happened out there on the river? Robert mused, later on, in an article for Harvard Business Review. “It became clear to me that not only had I been unhappy with a woman as helms person, but also that Bill and I had subconsciously, by habit, proceeded to undermine the women.”

Robert Shrank is a high-level professional working in a progressive organization who was interested in analyzing the breakdown of their team efforts out on the river and learning from the experience how it related to gender segregation in the organizational world. First, he says, “there is the machismo business.” To the macho male, a man’s role is taking care of women. It is also a given that he never, if he can help it, yields any power. On balance, Shrank believes that what happened on Raft No. 4 happens in most organizations when women enter positions of leadership. Because organizations are usually designed as pyramids, the moving-up process entails squeezing someone else out. The higher one rises in the pyramid, the greater the squeeze. “As women enter the squeezing, men are doubly threatened; first, the number of pyramid squeeze players is increasing; second, because the new players are women, our masculinity is on the block.”

When the job market shrinks, women in managerial positions are resented even more. They are threatening mens’ livelihood.

There was an important analogy, Schrank concluded, between navigating a river and operating successfully in a big bureaucracy, though in some ways it was easier to understand the river--”how it flows, its hydraulics, its sleepers, or its chutes, and women, like men, can learn these things.”

But recognizing the “sleepers and chutes” in a big organization is a more political than intellectual task, this personnel administrator recognized. He thinks that women attempting to navigate their way through corporate life need to face the fact that “the sleepers and chutes will be vested groups of men, who, when their power is threatened, will pull any woman down for tinkering with their interests.”

Wow! A striking admission, and all the more notable for its being openly shared in the pages of one of the country’s top business journals.

The gender theorist Eleanor Maccoby, of Stanford University, has found that the sort of gender discrimination Robert Schrank described shows itself even more flagrantly in smaller businesses. To some degree, she thinks, regionalism affects how far men are willing to go. An Indiana woman recently filed a lawsuit against her former employer after she was fired for complaining about sexual harassment in her workplace. She had taken issue with weekly sales meetings fondly referred to by male workers as “Pie Night.” In her lawsuit, Christy Hubbard told how each Wednesday evening the top salesperson of the week at Advertising Specialists, Inc. was urged to throw a pie in the face of the salesperson with the worst weekly record. The loser could then tell the winner to “expose his or her chest or behind for pie throwing.” On September 1, 1993, Hubbard was told “to take off her blouse and bra and was surrounded by several yelling, laughing, swearing, intoxicated male salesmen.” They then rubbed a pie over her exposed breasts.

When Hubbard had complained to her manager, she reported in her deposition, he told her her complaints about the incident were “negative” and “could not be tolerated because it was having an adverse effect on sales.” When the regional manager of Advertising Specialists was questioned during the same deposition, he had little to offer in the way of a rationale for Pie Night. “That’s what we do,” he said lamely.

It isn’t only Midwestern salesmen who are acting out their discomfort with the presence of women in their workplace. Consider the noble profession of law. After 14 female students brought formal complaints against Temple Law School, the American Bar Association Journal was inspired to run an article reporting that in spite of the broadening presence of women in the profession, both female law students and practitioners continued to be the target of unwanted, inappropriate behavior. This surprising report was published last fall. With women now representing half of incoming law students and a third of all lawyers, doesn’t it seem odd that harassment in the legal profession continues?

Apparently not only continues, but rises.

One study found more hostility on the part of male law students in the mid-90s than existed when women represented much smaller percentages of law classes. This study cited a 1995 incident at Yale Law School in which someone distributed a flyer rating the female students’ sexual desirability, using phrases like “exotic and erotic” and “boy toy” to describe individual women.

Karyn Mathis, Chair of the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates, thinks it’s the very increase in the number of female lawyers that produces, at least in some men, the fear that their position in the profession is being threatened! “It’s an insidious way for men to control women,” says Mathis. “Men can’t control them in terms of salary any more but they are going to use their sex to intimidate and control women.”

Of concern to the ABA’s Journal were studies which found that students were taking their hostile attitudes toward women right along with them into the law firms. “Lawyers report one-on-one difficulties with colleagues similar to those described in schools.”

A related problem the Journal noted is the phenomenon of male lawyers “privately” viewing Internet pornography in their offices. Even when the office doors are closed, of course, the women know what the men are doing in there, and feel the vibes.

Fear of backlash keeps many female workers from discussing the issue, even anonymously. Law firms, for example, have a distinctly “male club” atmosphere. “It is very difficult for women in most firms to raise accusations without killing their careers,” according to the Journal.

What’s important here is the larger picture, the role the “hostile workplace” plays in reproducing work and work competence along masculine and feminine lines. The point of harassment, feminist legal scholars explain, isn’t sexual domination but the desire to preserve favored lines of work as masculine. By maintaining their hold on highly rewarded employment, men get to be on top--not only at work, but outside the workplace as well. Some of the advantages they secure through perpetuating a work environment that’s hostile to women are material. Earning more than women keeps them at the head of the household as well as at the head of the most powerful institutions in society.

Other advantages for men in maintaining a hostile work environment are psychological. Bread winning and work competence both continue to be central to society’s understanding of manhood. Men need to protect their work from incursion by women by keeping them as inferiors. Only then can they sustain the impression that their work requires uniquely masculine skills.

Whether sexual in content or not, harassment serves a gender-guarding, competence undermining function: subverting women’s capacity to perform in lines of work favored by men. It is also a way of policing the boundaries of work so as to protect masculine image and identity. A woman who works as a pipe fitter explained, “It is very hard for them to work with me because they’re really into proving their manhood. And when a woman comes on a job who can work, get something done fast and efficiently, as well as they can, it really affects them. Somehow, if a woman can do it, it’s not that masculine.”

Gender discrimination in the workplace us about keeping things male, and it is neither accidental or incidental. It is endemic-- maintained across occupational and class lines, from blue-collar to white-, from high places to low, from medicine to sales to construction, from boardrooms to restaurants to firehouses, from managers to coworkers to subordinates, male workers create environments that undermine the capabilities of women, whose presence in the workplace they find threatening.


Colette Dowling,20006-2010

About the author...

NY psychotherapist Colette Dowling received her masters degree from The Smith College School for Social Work and has done advanced training at The Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy, in new York.

Among Colette's books are The Cinderella Complex: Women's Hidden Fear of Independence, Red Hot Mamas: Coming into Our Own at Fifty, and "You Mean I Don't Have to Feel This Way?": New Help for Depression, Anxiety and Adiction.


NY psychotherapist Colette Dowling, LMSW, has a private practice in Manhattan. She specializes in the treatment of women. For further information, or to arrange a consultation, call 718-594-0201, or write dowlingcolette@earthlink.net

To hear Colette speaking about what it's like starting therapy with someone new, click the audio button.

Visit Colette's therapist profile at Psychology Today.

For more information on women's mental health issues go to Colette's website.

For excerpts from Colette's books, click here.

Copyright Colette Dowling, 2006-2010
Contact: dowlingcolette@earthlink.net