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Author Judith Briles Discovers That Women at Work May Be Women at War—usually with Each Other

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Is sisterhood a sham? If you’re a woman, is that sweet-faced co-worker lying to you, stealing from you, starting malicious gossip about you or taking credit for your work? She very well could be, claims management consultant Judith Briles, author of Woman to Woman: From Sabotage to Support.

A former stockbroker for E.F. Hutton & Company and the author of four other books on women, ethics and finance, Briles, 42, is now a public speaker on women’s issues. To answer the question posed by her book’s first chapter, “Are Women Really Barracudas?” Briles mailed out four-page questionnaires to 2,000 men and women chosen from the pages of Who’s Who. More than 300 responded and were interviewed personally. They included Ginny Foat, a former executive of the National Organization for Women, and Rita Lavelle, once head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s hazardous waste division in the Reagan Administration. Both said their careers were sabotaged by female co-workers.

Briles’s conclusions are disturbing. While men are deemed more frequently underhanded in their dealings with co-workers, they are at least equal opportunists, doing dirt to men and women alike. Women, although initially less apt to behave unethically, are much more likely to take advantage of other women, according to Briles. “As women enter positions of power,” she says, “the opportunities for sabotage increase. And women have been socialized to think of each other as rivals.” Briles discussed her findings in San Francisco with correspondent Dianna Waggoner.

What surprised you most in the responses to your survey?

There was so much pain and hurt. Women wrote, “Please call me.” They also called me and said, “I’ve got to talk to somebody.” Sometimes I could hear them crying and pounding the desk saying, “She did this to me.” I had to refer some to psychologists.

When women are sabotaged by other women, why is there so much pain?

When women go to work, they confuse being friendly with friendship. We assume that because our colleague is another woman we can talk about everything from being a victim of the Dalkon Shield to family problems to our love life. Frankly, we talk too much. So when the knife goes in, there is a personal twist to it.

In other words, women suffer because they are betrayed by supposed friends?

Absolutely. A perfect example is Ginny Foat, the California president of NOW in 1983, who left that position after she was indicted for a 1965 murder in New Orleans. [She subsequently was tried and acquitted.] What a lot of people don’t realize is that Shelly Man-dell, who revealed Ginny’s background, was once one of her best friends. Foat claims that Mandell did this because Ginny decided not to run for the national presidency of NOW and Shelly was ticked off that she wasn’t included in the process of making that decision.

Rita Lavelle was convicted of lying to Congress in 1983. How does she think she was sabotaged by another woman?

I interviewed Rita Lavelle quite extensively, and from all I’ve been able to ascertain, she got screwed. [Convicted of perjury during a congressional probe into the EPA’s hazardous waste management, Lavelle spent five months in jail.] Lavelle claims that her boss [EPA chief Anne Burford] levied personal attacks against her, failed to praise her and took credit for programs she had created and administered. [Burford denies these charges and says she never had any personal quarrel with Lavelle] Rita had idolized Anne Burford, but she was just too trusting and naive.

Are many women too trusting?

Absolutely. We misplace trust. We give out personal information to people who really haven’t earned the right to it. When I told this to a group of women lawyers, the heads in that entire room nodded up and down.

How do women sabotage each other?

In one instance, two women, equally qualified, were being considered for a promotion. The first woman told the other about some problems at home—her teenage son was involved with drugs. The second woman made it known—”Gee, I don’t know how she can do all that she does with all those problems at home”—that sort of thing. Not surprisingly, the first woman didn’t get the promotion.

How do men sabotage someone?

Men are often very direct. They simply say, “I’m going to get your job.” Men may spread rumors, but more often they will take credit for something they didn’t do.

Do women tend to be more deceptive than men?

Yes. Women are more covert. We learn at an early age to get our way by being subtle, quiet and manipulative. Girls learn that if they smile and are coy, they can twist Dad around their little finger. Men are more overt and are taught to compete more openly.

How do men react to sabotage?

Men wipe their hands and move on. They let things roll off their backs more easily than we do. We women take sabotage more personally. Men are more pragmatic.

How do women react to sabotage?

First, we block it out because we have a sisterhood and women aren’t supposed to do those things to other women. At a dinner party in New York, a reporter told me she had never experienced any sabotage from another woman. The woman sitting next to her interrupted and said “You’ve got to be kidding. Don’t you remember when you first announced you were pregnant, and that other woman was after your job and she did this, this and this?” The reporter looked blank for a second and then said, “You’re right. I didn’t want to remember.”

Why do women attack each other?

In the world of business, you have men at the top, a mixture of men and women in the middle, and then more and more women toward the bottom. If you are going to act unethically toward someone, it’s more than likely that you’re going to do it to someone whom you perceive as having less power.

What can a sabotaged woman do?

Several things. I asked women if there were anything they would do differently if they had it to do over again. The number one response, overwhelmingly, was, “I’d confront her.” Women take too long to deal with an unpleasant situation. We have to learn to move more quickly and nip it in the bud.

What else should a woman do?

After she confronts it, she should let it go. That’s what men do. They may hate each other, but they still interact. Women usually don’t do it like that. Women often end up with an enemy they simply can’t work with.

Is sisterhood a myth?

No, I don’t think so. But we do have to be aware that there are some sisters we can talk with and some we can’t. In every family there are some siblings who can get along and some who can’t. We simply have to take this knowledge to work with us.