By Natalie Abou-Alwan

I don’t know about you, but I have often wondered whether this is a universal truth. After all, history and literature remind us that a woman scorned is something to be feared, particularly if you are at the receiving end of her contempt. I accept that the sisterhood does exist. Like many of you, I have felt its inspiring and powerful engine, but it is certainly not the norm and surprisingly sparse just where you would expect it to be most prevalent. I have often asked myself why. After years of observation and direct experience, I feel that I am able to shed some light on this taboo subject.

Natalie Abou-Alwan

We have all heard the stories of women in corporate settings whose voices are hushed by their alpha male counterpart, more than likely earning a higher wage for doing the same job and often with less experience than the female, but with more bravado and a stronger network to tip that balance. The more women I speak to across industries, the more I recognise their experience of being abused, yet not by a male colleague flexing his muscles (often literally), instead more shockingly by a female in power. A female whose tactics are more subtle (at least to men), but potentially far more ruthless and damaging to one of her own species.

I entered the corporate world in the late 1990s, post the Dynasty-shoulder-padded female executive zenith and yet I was constantly being reminded of the great debt owed by me and others in my position, to the Pankhurstian Boadiceas of the Legal profession, who selflessly blazed a trail for the softer and weaker fledglings embarking on our careers. We were to look up to these female fortresses and gaze in awe at their relentless fight to pave the way for those who came after them. I have no problem with this as a concept. Many of these women were indeed brave in blazing the trail, their sacrifices and achievements are undeniable. However, disappointingly, in many cases these fortresses were buttressed so tightly, with all draw bridges firmly lifted and locked in place, that any newcomer had no hope of crossing the moat of knowledge nor scaling the towers of experience: “Admire us from afar, fear us even, but stay where you are. We have climbed the ladder, good for us and don’t you dare expect us to lower it down for you.”

You know as well as I do, that this is the absolute antithesis of sisterhood and yet a bit like the menopause, while experienced by many women, it is surprisingly so little talked about. So why is this common experience not more widely aired? One theory is concern that raising these issues openly  might lead to women living up to the “gossipy/bitchy” stereotype that some would say has mainly been perpetrated by men. Another theory plays out more like a Clint Eastwood movie, the feeling that when it comes to corporate quotas for women in power, “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us”. Indeed, whilst a recent MSCI report concluded that boards must contain at least three women to ensure decision-making is equalised, currently 73% of corporations contain at least one female director, but only 20% of boards contain at least three female directors.

And while paying lip service to the importance of equality, diversity and inclusion, why are so many women in power simultaneously putting so much of their energy into pushing others down while lifting themselves higher? I agree that it is not just women who should be helping other women pursue their full career potential, although they do seem to be a relatively obvious place to start.

I am certainly no psychologist, but it doesn’t take a professional to recognise that one of the causes at the core of this behaviour is insecurity. Distilled, the key lies in fear, pure and simple. In some cases, triggering a deep-rooted lack of self-worth, perhaps even a strong self-loathing and in others, a decision to take on behaviours of male colleagues, whether consciously or not, to remain in power. For these women, their careers are, in their mind only, often the only achievement they have managed, to neutralise the impact of the school bully, the disappointing exam result, the neglectful or harsh parent, the wayward husband or the physical self-criticism playing like an old VHS video in their head.

What can we do to change this behaviour and bring those draw bridges down? Expecting others to change requires a recognition of the problem and a willingness to do things differently. Many of these women are already exhausted by expending their energy on networking upwards to have leftover oxygen to stop, breathe and reflect on the damage they may be leaving in their wake. We therefore can’t solely rely on change at this level. Rather, it is down to the true sisterhood to ensure that they continue to act as the antidote, the vaccine, if you like in this day and age and to encourage immunity amongst the female population at the receiving end of this behaviour and allow talent to flourish. It takes courage and self-belief to ensure that these bad examples do not wound and scar but rather act as a lesson: “This is not the way I will behave to others”. Only then can we allow ourselves the hope that change is coming, loud and clear.

Dealing with a Queen Bee

If only I could put my arm around my fledgling self, what advice would I give her? Here are my top tips on how to navigate similar experiences in the hope that we can start to break the cycle of bad behaviour:

  • It’s not me, it’s you” – especially early on in your career, it is not easy to shut off the noise, to take a step back and see the situation for what it really is – “Queen Bee syndrome”. I found that working hard and focussing on the job in hand, helped me not only build my knowledge and experience, but also my confidence, acting as my own fortress if you like, that was better equipped to repel the arrows.
  • Seek wise counsel” – actively seek feedback from those you trust and respect in the workplace, either clients or colleagues. This will help to re-balance the lack of support and negativity, acting as a counter to any inbuilt self-criticism.
  • Nobody’s perfect” – if you are receiving consistent messages in your feedback from both Queen Bee and those you trust, use this constructively as an opportunity to work on those concerns. This will take the issue out of the spotlight and will serve to make you a better, more rounded and thoughtful professional.
  • Shake it off” – as Taylor Swift would say. I have often wondered why women in general tend to hold on to and internalise criticism, whereas men seem to find it easier to let go, taking it less personally. If you can, try to stay objective and keep focussed on your goals, which will push Queen Bee out of your limelight.
  • Role Model” – whether real or fictional, I sometimes imagine how someone I am impressed with would handle a particular situation. I have found that it can help draw strength and inspiration.
  • Make a break for Freedom” – if all else fails and your workday continues to resemble a scene out of The Devil Wears Prada, remember you hold the controls and you can decide when it’s time to switch channels. Working with good recruitment firms will help you polish up your CV and allow you to realise your worth in the market.

I will leave you with a couple of thoughts: firstly, my sincere gratitude to those women in powerful positions who actively help pull talented females up with them, who have gone the extra mile to encourage and support women during the highs and lows of their careers and who are the true warriors, breaking barriers, stereotypes and bad behaviours of some of their species (you may be pleased to hear that I will be dedicating an entire article to these Boadecias); and finally, as Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

About Natalie Abou-Alwan

With over 20 years’ experience in the project finance, energy and commodities industries, Natalie started her career as a private practice lawyer in both UK and Wall Street law firms. In 2006, Natalie formed part of the initial team establishing and expanding JPMorgan Chase Bank’s European Energy & Commodities Trading business, moving to BP plc in 2012, where she held various leadership positions in the Global Oil Trading and Low Carbon businesses, as well as co-chairing its ethnic minorities network. Natalie sits on the Board of Smart Works, a national charity helping more women back into the workplace and mentors men and women across industries