Conversations with Catalyst: Team Members Not Playing Fair?

While moderating a panel recently, I asked several successful businesswomen to describe mistakes they had made in their careers and what they’d learned from them. I was particularly struck by one panelist’s comment that one of the most important lessons she’d learned was not to tolerate a lack of support from members of her team. It took a couple of “train wrecks” to bring that lesson home.

Research on diverse women often focuses on the challenges such women face when it comes to obtaining mentorship and sponsorship from powerful executives (women are less likely than men to have access to leaders senior enough to significantly advance their careers). But the tension some women of color managers report experiencing with their employees is rarely discussed.

Women of color managers sometimes report being undermined by their employees, especially by those with racial or ethnic backgrounds different from their own. In Catalyst’s report “Women of Color Executives: Their Voices, Their Journeys,” a senior Asian American woman manager described an out-of-line employee as follows:

I had a very difficult performance discussion with one of my staff. He clearly was not open to receiving negative feedback from a female and thought that he could work the system to use the fact that I was a female to build a stereotype: “She really can’t lead … she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” He thought he could get further with his issues just because I was a female.

The same report quotes a black woman manager who had to deal with similar issues, but was fortunate to have the confidence and support of her boss:

I’ve had situations where people go around me to the boss. I’ve been very fortunate that when I’ve had those situations, I could go to my boss and say, “You’re going to have to make a decision here. If everybody’s going to bypass me and go directly to you, and you make the decision, you’re undermining me.”

Arguably even more damaging than disrespecting a diverse woman’s authority by attacking her managerial skills or skipping over her in the chain of command are the subtler ways in which a lack of support can be expressed—including but not limited to employees who dole out criticism and withhold praise or who don’t keep their diverse woman manager in the loop about their projects and priorities.

This type of behavior may signal that the employee in question will eventually go behind your back and actively undermine you, and it shouldn’t be tolerated or ignored. Many diverse women are acutely sensitive to the pain of being rejected and/or held to double standards in the workplace, so they strive to create diverse and inclusive teams that are tolerant of a variety of work styles. But if you feel consistently undermined by a team member, even subtly, it’s wiser in the long run to address such behavior head-on.

Many women ignore their own instincts about toxic colleagues because they find it so uncomfortable to speak up. Situations differ, and employees should always be evaluated on an individual basis, but it’s crucial to listen to your gut—and, when necessary, act quickly to protect yourself and your career. DW

Katherine Giscombe, PhD, is Catalyst’s vice president and women of color practitioner, Global Member Services.

Founded in 1962, Catalyst is the leading nonprofit organization expanding opportunities for women and business. With offices in the United States, Canada, Europe, India, and Australia, and more than 700 members, Catalyst is the trusted resource for research, information, and advice about women at work. Find out more at

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