Pink elephant

Posted by on Jan 12, 2009 in career | 6 comments


In 1980, I worked as an intern on the municipal bonds floor of a well-known brokerage/financial institution. Although it was certainly not my “thang,” I learned a tremendous amount about how the business world operated, and most importantly, about the games that people play.

One thing that struck me in particular at that time was the role of women in this business and how they dressed and behaved. Women were not abundant in positions of power, and those who were, well, in some respects, they emulated men; they were aggressive, competitive and not particularly kind to one another.

Clearly, things have changed drastically in the almost three decades that have followed. But one thing that hasn’t changed much is how sisters act in the workplace.

A line from this wonderful article that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times made me realize that certain stereotypes continue to perpetuate bad behavior. And, that as Author Peggy Klaus so aptly writes, “the pink elephant is lurking in the room and we pretend it’s not there.”

The pink elephant is lurking in the room.

Klaus’ point is that rather than help build each others career, women often work to derail each other, engaging instead in “verbal abuse, job sabotage, misuse of authority and destroying of relationships.” She cites data suggesting that this type of behavior is directed from women to women >70% of the time, while the men who are “bullies in the workplace,” direct their aggression equally to both genders.

Klaus offers numerous reasons why women become aggressors in the workplace: scarcity of positions, bootstrap (I pulled myself up, why should I help you?) and hyperemotionality that leads to an overinvestment in workplace occurrences that cause them to hold grudges.

Her point, however, is not to determine the why but rather, engage one another to put an end to this type of behavior.

I’ve written previously that as we grow older, friendships and support of one another are essential to our overall wellbeing. Regardless of whether its in the workplace or in our personal lives, supportive relationships allow the soul to flourish and grow. Personal resources as they pertain to social support also help see us through the rougher aspects of menopause.

Should women give preferential treatment to one another? No, absolutely not. But as Klaus says, perhaps we should start treating one another as we want our “nieces, daughters, granddaughters an sisters to be treated.” We should simply… acknowledge the pink elephant in the room. And show it the door.


  1. 1-12-2009

    Liz, this is so true. In my experience before I went independent, I found that for the most part, that competition exists between women in the workplace and rather than working together, women work against each other. There was one exception in this and the team I was part of was tight and nurturing of each other. This lasted for a many years before a new person came on our team and upset the balance. We need to start encouraging each other more as women. It’s a win-win situation if we do.

  2. 1-12-2009

    There needs to be a follow up to this statement: She cites data suggesting that this type of behavior is directed from women to women >70% of the time, while the men who are “bullies in the workplace,” direct their aggression equally to both genders.

    Bullies prey on/challenge people they perceive to be weaker or who they can “win” against. As a woman who has worked in a large organization with few women in leadership positions, I’ve noticed that women tend to speak up less and are less confrontational when there is conflict. So it makes sense that women would “bully” other women more than men.

    The best example I have was on a large project (>100) where all three partner leads were men. There were at least 50% women in manager or below roles no top level senior men. It turns out there was a rampant pattern of sexual harassment proliferating and I was one of the recipients of it when my senior manager grabbed me in between my legs during a team outing (this was a Fortune 100 company). I had been hearing other stories similar to this so I called on several female Senior Partners (not on the project) to participate in a Women’s Round Table. Over 30 women from the project attended and as soon as I shared my experience, at least 8 other women spoke up with similar examples of sexual harassment. The result was the highest level female executive took immediate action and cleaned up shop – with the male project partner guilty of the most flagrant misconduct getting fired.

    One of the easiest things we can do to support women is to encourage them to use their voice and speak up. Great post.

  3. 1-12-2009

    Great Comment Amy, thank you! With regards to the data that author cites, here’s the link to the survey conducted by the American Bullying Institute

  4. 1-16-2009

    An enlightened male friend of mine shared the NYTimes piece with me; it’s a great article; unfortunately it resonated strongly with me. While I’ve made some wonderful lifelong female friends through the workplace, I’ve experienced the dark side of working with women as well — all too frequently.

    Thanks for highlighting this article. I definitely agree that we should start treating one another as we want our “nieces, daughters, granddaughters and sisters to be treated.”

    I wish there was a way to speed the process.

    I think its very tough, as in reality there are still many fewer women in positions of authority, and unfortunately they too often persist in emulating male patterns of leadership.

    The real kicker, though, is this: Women who are assertive are often perceived as aggressive and/or emotional in the workplace (when a male exhibiting the same behavior would not be), which I believe works to keep many women quiet, and frequently leads to those who do risk speaking up standing alone and becoming vilified.

    My two cents.

  5. 7-16-2010

    Could not agree more. Thank you.

    • 7-16-2010

      Kathy – thanks for raising the issue again. The more that we can bring these problems to the fore, the greater the likelihood that women can shift the paradigm and start supporting rather than hindering progress in the workplace.


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