Why Women Undermine Women & What To Do About It.

The Problem: The Workplace

I read an article recently on why some women undermine other women in the workplace. I was struck by the conclusion: Women undermine other women not so much because of gender but because of workplace conditions.

I disagree.

Some women undermine other women because of the influence of patriarchy and impact of gender stereotypes on workplace conditions.

I’m a female consultant whose focus is on women, peace and security issues. I’m also a coach and trainer for humanitarian aid and international development workers. My workplace includes women of different ages, sexual orientation and nationalities. We all work to establish women’s rights and gender equality within the realm of humanitarian aid and international development. This means we are actively working to dismantle patriarchy. We also work within a patriarchal paradigm.

In this environment, gender inequality prevails and value is placed on traditionally assigned stereotypical male traits which include aggressive persistence and shutting down emotion. There is also fear of asking questions. The default reaction to asking questions is to perceive it as a personal challenge rather than noting it as a way to reflect on an issue, identify gaps, acknowledge failure and address problems with more clarity to achieve success. In this environment, fear, judgment and shame are techniques used to shut-down voices and feelings in part, to move agendas ahead, which are sometimes vague, and to meet deadlines that, more often than not, do not align with the human experience of undergoing change. This also means that stress, anger, sadness, and exhaustion are internalized.

Up to this point, I describe a workplace all genders experience including men. The divergence lies in women’s experiences in the workplace due to gender discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual violence. I acknowledge that other genders experience varying degrees of what I have just outlined. This post considers the particular experience of women in the workplace where power and privilege lie primarily with men and where stereotypical male traits are generally valued over stereotypical female traits.

How Women Undermine Women

Women have learned how to work within a patriarchal structure. Those who don’t quite adopt the process are generally considered weak, abnormal and dismissed. Burn-out, for some, is revered. It’s proof that you are working hard to make a difference. Never mind that it almost or completely wipes you out so that you are unable to do any more work. Taking the time out to recover from intense, traumatic experiences for many makes you look weak. “You gotta work until you drop.”

Some women accept that this is the way it is. The message is reinforced, in part, by colleagues and managers. The result is the impact to the women working on women’s rights and gender equality.

Powering through, reacting instead of taking a moment to pause, the inability to exercise curiosity and being tough on ourselves instead of compassionate is resulting in women feeling and being undermined by other women and themselves! It is also taking away momentum on establishing gender equality and supporting women’s rights.


It is not the intention of most women to shut-down other women’s voices and undermine or make them feel undermined. What is happening is the natural reaction to working within a patriarchal paradigm where women are constantly on their guard and have to speak a patriarchal language to be heard.

Many women choose to protect themselves and accept that they must use a patriarchal approach to achieve women’s rights and establish gender equality. The problem is this only makes it more difficult to achieve. Data collected by the Humanitarian Women’s Network, Report The Abuse and Tufts University clearly demonstrates that there are very tangible reasons for women to protect themselves. In doing so however, they end up isolating themselves and feeling alone.

While women have learned what is needed to be an expert, most have not learned how to be resilient. In this atmosphere, women crave connection but are unable to be vulnerable to share their experiences.

In trying to feel connection, some women fall into the trap of developing “common enemy intimacy” as coined by Dr. Brené Brown. In her book Braving The Wilderness, she states: “Is there a faster, easier way to make friends with a stranger than to talk smack about someone you both know?…It is a seductive, reliable, and super easy way to connect with just about anyone…The connection that we forge by judging and mocking others is not real connection.”[pg. 135] The result is an unhealthy environment where connection is sought, where discrimination, harassment and violence is experienced and where women fail in truly feeling empowered and supporting the empowerment of other women.

Resilience & Conflict Transformation

So what do we do?

The solution is a combination resilience and conflict transformation techniques.

If women are to stop undermining women, we need to stop undermining ourselves.

Here are some initial steps to take:

1) Build a support system of people who will not judge you and will support you when you need help. People who will not attack you and not impose solutions. Rather they will meet you where you are at. This is a way to protect yourself while not isolating yourself.

2) Shift from judgment to compassion for yourself first. If you can’t be supportive and gentle with yourself no one else will. We all make mistakes. Take it easy on yourself. Know that this action is not only a means of protecting yourself; it is also a means of empowering yourself.

3) Be your best friend. Before reacting to provocations, find a safe space, allow yourself to feel your emotions, practice compassion for yourself and then like a best friend, not an interrogator, get curious about how you feel. Breathe in and out and notice: Are you angry? Sad? Disappointed? Embarrassed? Frustrated? Take note and then come back to focusing on your breath. Ask yourself what has made you upset and why?

These steps may seem simplistic. If you practice them you will be surprised and enlightened by what rises to the surface. This clarity will impact your actions and your words.

Over time, becoming more mindful and clear about your intentions, identifying and reinforcing your boundaries, as well as understanding why you react the way you do will create a feeling of empowerment, build resilience and help build meaningful connection that will support shifting a patriarchal system to one that embraces gender equality and the reinforcement of women’s rights.

This process is hard and rewarding. It involves addressing internal conflict in order to address external conflict like the patriarchal environment women work in.

This requires not only skills in resilience but skills in communication and conflict transformation. These include active listening, acknowledgement, curiosity and silence.

Consider the following:

Active Listening & Acknowledgement – In order to have acknowledgment, people need to feel heard first. To do this one needs to actively listen.

Curiosity – Being curious is integral as well. It necessitates learning how to ask the questions that will get to the underlying root of problems. With clarity rather than assumptions, issues that stop gender equality and the implementation of women’s rights can be addressed effectively.

Silence – Finally, silence needs to be viewed not as weakness but as a powerful tool because it is. Being silent while the other person is speaking, especially if they are in attack mode, can be difficult. Practicing being present and listening not only to words and tone but what is not being said is valuable. There is so much to learn in the silence. It can help determine how to speak to the other person’s underlying interests in a way that benefits everyone. It also creates the space for reflection and clarity.

The observation that women undermine women in the workplace is not false. It is however faulty not to fully acknowledge the reason it happens. To stop undermining women in the workplace women need to acknowledge the context we work in, acknowledge behaviours that do not serve the agenda, be compassionate with ourselves and others, and learn the skills required to make change last.

We can make it easier on ourselves if we give ourselves the chance.



I expand on the ideas and tips above in my free toolkit. Click HERE and sign-up.


If you would like to build your relationship management skills to improve project implementation; learn how to address power dynamics, conflict and difficult conversations; avoid burn-out and improve your resilience skills click HERE for more info on my coaching and training services & to sign-up for a free needs assessment.



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