A Pink Elephant in the Room - APPROVED IMAGESome believe that having made their way to top positions, senior women-executives might hire and encourage more women. But much of the time, it doesn’t play out that way.

Research conducted by Michelle Duguid, PhD., is showing that often, women in top roles actually are not helping their qualified peers. Michelle is the assistant professor of Organizational Behavior at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. In her study titled, Female Tokens in high-prestige work groups: Catalysts or inhibitors of group diversification,1 Michelle uncovered three factors as to why women may not lend a hand to each other:

  • Competitive threat: This is true in any scenario where demand outpaces availability. The person’s fear here is that another highly qualified woman in a business environment may be more competent and accepted than she is. So she doesn’t go out of her way to help the person she is feeling intimidated by.
  • Collective threat: On the other hand, it seems that women may also be careful about bringing in other women with lower qualifications. The concern here is that lower-skilled women could reinforce negative stereotypes about women in general and impact others’ impressions of them.
  • Favoritism threat: Some women are concerned that they may appear biased toward other women, and thus, won’t support or advocate for them.2

“To this day, a pink elephant is lurking in the room,” says Peggy Klaus an executive leadership coach. “For years, I have heard behind closed doors from women—young and old, up and down the ladder—that we can be our own worst enemies at work.”3

Identifying with their own demographic group may help leaders manage work relationships and develop alliances and mentoring relationships with other women, notes Michelle.

If you feel inhibited by a female “token,” knowing that other women are feeling the same pressure may be a relief. As for the senior women-executives? Being aware is a good starting point. It’s key to stop ourselves from our own misbehavior and to call our colleagues on theirs.


  1. M. Duguid. Female Tokens in high-prestige work groups: Catalysts or inhibitors of group diversification? Science Direct Web site. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749597811000720. Accessed September 30, 2013.
  2. Glass Ceiling (Press release) PR Web site. Available at: http://www.prweb.com/releases/2012/5/prweb9481915.htm. Accessed September 30, 2013.
  3.  When Women Derail Other Women in the office. Blogs.wsj.com. Available at; http://blogs.wsj.com/juggle/2009/01/29/when-women-derail-other-women-in-the-office/. Accessed September 30, 2013.

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