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Dena L. Anthony, Ph.D.
San Francisco, Palo Alto, Albany
(510) 525-6156

Article published in The San Francisco Psychologist, March 2006.

Established norms and an old boys' network often keep women from positions of power for which they are at least as competent. Research has shown that even when women are as capable as men, they are often not seen as such, especially if they also perform the valuable relational activities that keep their colleagues and the project on task. Women can be "disappeared" for being relational, despite their effectiveness on the job (Fletcher, 1999). My research (2002) detailed the effects of ineffective and distressing work environments on women. In this article I will briefly indicate some of the problems that Fletcher found women encountering because they held values that differed from those in their work culture. Then I will describe some of the effects of similar problems that I found in the women in my research. When the very structure of the system devalues a person's necessary skills and abilities, it can seem impossible to maintain the exploratory zest and joy that are the hallmarks of creativity. Women in corporations face specific and formidable problems and challenges. Some of these women come to therapy in their pain and confusion from these issues. Understanding the predominant workplace culture and its effects on women may aid clinicians in fostering corporate women's healing.

After a quarter of a century in corporate and academic work settings, I found myself questioning the goals and foundations of the dominant paradigm in which I was working. Research at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College and the Harvard Project on the Psychology of Women and the Development of Girls suggested a different fundamental belief system that made more sense to me and to many others I knew, especially women. This belief system sees growth and effectiveness occurring through empathy, vulnerability and connection, and views these attributes as strengths rather than weaknesses or emotional dependencies. But in her research with women engineers, Joyce Fletcher, DBA, found that it could be professionally dangerous for women to use their relational skills in support of their projects, despite their level of competence. Fletcher found that women's perceived value to the company was depreciated when they engaged in relational activities in support of their projects. This decrease in their perceived value occurred despite their high level of technical abilities and contributions, and the women's effectiveness at their jobs (Fletcher, 1999).

For example, in Fletcher's study a woman engineer had a solution to a company problem that went beyond her own division. She knew that it was more likely to be considered if her boss, with his higher status, presented the solution at a scheduled meeting. She gave the idea to her boss so that it was most likely to effectively solve the problem for the company. Within an environment that values competition and assertiveness, this woman engineer's actions were seen as fearing success, being naive and not putting herself forward in her career. In the woman's view, she was acting in a way that would be most effective for the company. But in the view of her company she had not "hit the home run," and was not likely to be promoted because she did not step forward in the critical situation with her solution to the problem. Her effectiveness was "disappeared." Fletcher calls this phenomenon "misattribution of motive." In another instance in Fletcher's study, an engineer's effectiveness was "disappeared" when she was willing to do the critical soldering herself. Her attitude of "whatever it takes" to get the project out on time, a "logic of effectiveness," was contrary to the cultural norm of self-promotion, autonomy and individualism (Fletcher, 1999).

Some years ago, when I was a young Mathematics Assistant Professor, I asked to be allowed to create and teach a non-credit class for people who were having problems learning math. The department chairman’s response was “What if these women learn math with you and then go on to another math class and can’t learn in that environment?” I had not specified that the class would be for women only, but the department chairman had assumed that primarily women would take the class. This dismissive response was his final word. There was a prevailing attitude in education at the time that if the students were smart enough then they would learn the material. It was felt that math was meant to be a barrier that would differentiate the intellectually elite from those of lesser status. I never taught the class. I left the college and eventually left teaching. The chairman was functioning from a logic of maintaining power, control and status. Mine was a logic of effectiveness and care taking, addressing the question of how to reach people who were having trouble learning. I hope and believe that many math departments have changed since then. But this is a typical example of a woman experiencing soul-deadening treatment that discounts relational values in professional environments, and restricts her effectiveness.

As a psychologist I investigated the responses of accomplished women who expressed significant dissatisfaction with their work situations. I documented the effects of oppressions like the glass ceiling and the mismatch women experience between their own styles and values and those of corporations. Each of the women in my study had achieved some status in her chosen field. Some were high in administration at educational institutions. Others were in industry. All had sought me out in some way because of their need to express their distress at their work situations. They described workplace experiences of silencing, distancing, abuse, subordination, invalidation and abandonment. Over time some of these external oppressions became internalized in acquiescence to the prevailing assumptions of corporate culture.

Consider Gwen for illustrations of internalized oppression. Gwen had a Ph.D. in nutrition and food science. She worked in the food industry, at such companies as a national bakery and a specialty oven manufacturer. She was in middle management and research positions. There were at least eighteen instances of internalized oppression that stood out in Gwen's interview.

She spoke of many abuses throughout her career. The more flagrant ones involved the denial of deserved reviews, raises and advancement. About reviews and raises, Gwen explained "I knew that other people got reviews. I didn't care if they got raises. I mean, I did care, but I tried to . . . " It was not safe to admit to caring about something like raises, that can so easily be denied. Handling the split between her experience and "perceived reality" fueled Gwen's fragmentation. Her vulnerability to invalidation and rejection was agonizing, and so she tried to hide from it.

At one point in her career Gwen asked to interview for the job her boss was leaving. The request was ignored and an inexperienced man was hired. She then spent a year doing his job and digging the team out of his mistakes before he was asked to leave. Gwen was never given his title or salary, but she continued to do his job. Her company management abused her in disregarding the job she did, as well as her dedication, commitment and hard work. An overlay of distrust and resistance developed in Gwen's attitude toward her workplace. Within the abusive relationship she had with company management, she struggled mightily with her self-esteem. This struggle fluctuated between naming the external causes of her distress and internalizing the oppression in search of some normalization with her workplace environment. Self-silencing allowed her to continue with her job. She saw support and acknowledgment, in the form of salary and title, go to a person who could not do the job, instead of to herself, when she was doing the job! Eventually, without the essential community support, her self-esteem suffered terribly. She was aware of the losses she sustained from internalizing oppression in order to maintain connection within her community. "I think I have a lot lower . . . I mean I don't think I have the self-confidence that I might, if I'd been treated like he was." She had made a trade off that involved giving up her self-esteem and authenticity in exchange for maintaining connection in a workplace. This is indicative of an unsound and abusive community. Gwen internalized the oppression in an effort to resist exclusion and further abuse. She acknowledged her losses in adjusting to a stifling, repressive work environment and described the internalized effects of this adjustment when she said, "but I think if I had been successful, I think that if I hadn't of been stomped around on and hurt and emotionally drained, that I might be more assertive and aggressive than I am now." She goes on to explain:

I think if I had talked to you five, maybe seven years ago, I would have really fought more. I would have battled these people more. It has taken chunks of my enthusiasm. I've always had enthusiasm for whatever I'm doing, and I think that I've kind of been munched and crunched on. I can't give it all anymore, because someone else got it. You know, it's like pieces are missing, now -- my being willing to just step out and plow through. I hedge back. I'm not as aggressive or assertive. I'm a little calmer. I do think that all that has taken a lot of joy out of what you do, or your everyday life. And I do think it takes a lot of energy out of you, and I do think it takes a lot of motivation to succeed. You step back and say well maybe I just won't succeed, maybe I'll just plug along.

This was a eulogy to her ravaged dreams.

For each of these women, the final political resistance was to remove her committed self from the part of the struggle that crushed and shattered her. Each woman in some way moved away from the center of the struggle to a position where she could be truer to her own understandings and perhaps safer. Sara's story illustrates both relational effectiveness and a great conflict of values that lead to her leaving the center of professional activity for a safer and more enjoyable periphery. This conflict of values may have contributed to her developing cancer.

Sara was a college vice-president who attributed her breast cancer and double mastectomy to the stress she experienced when she had to fire people. Before becoming vice-president, she had flourished in developing an off site extension of the college. She explained "I wanted the campus to have a very family kind of feeling." She carefully thought out the needs of the students and the faculty that she wanted to attract, and creatively went about meeting those needs. To do this, she paid attention to a very feminine level and type of detail, which included dynamically servicing the faculty's teaching needs, as well as providing simple personal recognitions. She understood that "those are the feminine kinds of things that lend themselves well to any kind of culture. I think that people like getting nurtured, they like getting noticed." Even though she describes working at an off campus site as "like being sent to Siberia--not a plum," she was delighted with the opportunity it gave her to creatively form a supportive, encouraging, warm community that attracted faculty as well as students. She valued effectively forming dynamic community over achieving hierarchical status, although status was also important to her.

For Sara the dilemma of treating students and faculty consonant with her high level of personal integrity and meeting the demands of her loyalty to the system that she was committed to serve became hopeless. Describing some of her duties as vice-president, she explained, "in the three or four years that I had this position I had to lay off administrators, I had to fire one who was still on probation, I had to discipline classified employees, I had to give faculty the first bad evaluation they'd ever had in their careers." So she, who would nurture playfully and passionately, was forced to make and carry out threats of exclusion and professional violence. Caring and fairness became conflicting values for Sara. She describes her internalization of the systemic enigma:

One person who was a probationary administrator, I had to let her go. I told her I would not be renewing her contract. That was very messy, very ugly. I still feel as though I made the right decision in letting her go, but I agonized over that one for a long time. I think about it, I go, "Well, you know, was it my fault, did I not mentor her well, did I need to give her more attention and more of my time? Was I giving her mixed messages?" I would start questioning myself  . . .  'cause if I was at fault, then I shouldn't be firing her, I should be firing myself.  . . .  I made the right decision. But getting up to that point [involved] a lot of soul-searching. Because you're messing with people's income and their livelihood, and their self-esteem and all kinds of things. So I take those kinds of things very seriously.

The internal, physical stress of subduing her own caring way of being, to replace it with the required violence of firing someone was followed by breast cancer and a double mastectomy. After recovering from her cancer and surgery, Sara left her administrative position and moved into teaching and developing programs, positions that she enjoyed and where she flourished.

The women in the study wanted connection in their work environment, but were only able to approach interacting successfully by following the isolating paths of corporate competition, status and hierarchy. This disparity took a significant toll on these women who found it restrictive and arduous to adjust to the corporate environment, and who lived in its sterile environment without getting their relational needs met there. Each of the women in this study eventually left the center of the field of activity for a periphery in which she could be her true empathic, effective self and enjoy truly being of use.

In psychotherapy, clinicians can reframe women's experiences away from shame, guilt and self-doubt. When women understand the mismatch between their styles and values and their styles and values, and strategize to deal with it, they can better cope with the vagaries of corporate life. Clinicians can guide their women clients to explore their images of relational patterns in corporations and analyze these images from the perspective of the women's actual experience. To see how this knowledge can be applied to the practice of psychotherapy, consider a young woman from a corporate women’s group. Gayle presented as soft and classic, with a gentle strength and comprehensive intelligence. She was terribly upset and anxious about a meeting she had attended that day. The young marketing men in the meeting spent the time loudly vying for the floor, even though none of them had a solution to the dilemma under discussion. Gayle did have a good solution, but could not out-yell her competitors for attention. The meeting ended with nothing accomplished. Gayle was depressed, feeling ignored, isolated, and hopelessly condemned to being ineffective, even though she knew how to solve the problem. Gayle worked through these feeling with a lot of relational support. She eventually began to find ways to circumvent what she came to call "the testosterone wash," in order to get the job done well. Note that the advice she received from a well-meaning co-leader of the group -- to learn to be more competitive -- was worse than no help at all. She needed support in acknowledging and understanding her situation and strategizing to find her own ways to be effective.

Underlying belief and value systems that focus on self-aggrandizing, separatist styles of competition and hierarchy diminish women’s focus on being effective and on relational issues. Until the dominant separatist paradigm changes, women will suffer from this damaging abuse. Some of these women will come to therapy with depression, anxiety, fragmentation and self-esteem problems. Listening into women's experiences in corporations and observing the results of these experiences on their lives will allow clinicians to support their healing, rather than condemn them to further silence and isolation. Clinicians are better able to facilitate healing if we consider the emotional, psychological and relational mistreatment that underlie the problem. With this understanding we can “serve as witness, helping clients give language to their responses and normalize these responses to abusive experiences” (Anthony, 2002, p. 273). When clinicians understand the oppression and their clients' response to it, our next step is to witness and acknowledge the details of the angst suffered within the corporate domain, helping our clients give language to their experiential responses. Then we can normalize these responses to abusive experiences. Next clients will mourn unmet dreams and needs. Finally, as a woman comes to terms with the realities of the workplace, her task becomes the discovery of her authentic self and the creation of an appropriate future for herself.

Individual therapists have the option to reinforce the dominant paradigm's misogyny with their women clients, by defending and imposing established abusive standards of behavior, like insisting that a woman learn to be competitive, when instead she is trying to be relational and effective within a team structure. Or therapists can listen to and encourage their women clients to find their own voice, honor their own strengths, and develop strategies to survive and perhaps even change the abuse prevalent in their workplaces, without being psychologically and emotionally fragmented in the process.

While these studies and this article explored women’s experiences, it seems clear in my experience that aspects of the findings speak to the relational nature of people in general.

Please note that the names and specific circumstances of the people in the examples in this article have been changed to preserve their confidentiality.


Anthony, D.L. (2002). From the Father's House: A Phenomenological Study of the Dissonance Between Women's Styles and Values and Corporate Styles and Values. PhD Dissertation, Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, CA.

Fletcher, J. K. (1999). Disappearing acts: Gender, power, and relational practice at work. Cambridge: The MIT Press.