Rhea Gibbons was thrilled when she landed a job as a junior analyst at a small Manhattan brokerage firm. Gibbons's manager was the company's only female employee — until she hired Gibbons, a recent graduate of UC Berkeley. "I'm sure part of the reason she gave me a shot was because I'm a girl," says Gibbons, now 27. The pair shared an office and spent countless late nights hunched over spreadsheets. That proximity, coupled with the inescapable reality that they were the lone XX chromosomes in the office, soon led to more personal conversations about other colleagues and even the boss's marital woes. "She told me about all her problems," Gibbons explains. "And in some ways I was her best friend, because I knew her personal issues."
Only they weren't really friends. Gibbons fielded middle-of-the-night calls from her boss with frantic work requests; she felt she was routinely blamed when her boss caught flack from the higher-ups; and when one of the partners promoted Gibbons, her boss stopped talking to her altogether. Within two years, Gibbons fled to an all-male hedge fund, where, she enthuses, she gets regular feedback on her work — and nobody asks her to weigh in on domestic squabbles. "I know it's terrible to say, but I'll never work for a woman again," she declares.
It's a shocking sentiment percolating in offices across America, where for the first time in history three generations of women — Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Gen Y's (a.k.a. Millennials) — are working together. Their dirty little secret: They can't stand each other. Topping the growing pile of evidence is the recent study by the American Bar Association that found women lawyers under 40 overwhelmingly prefer working for men, who they say provide better direction and more constructive criticism, and are generally less demanding. Of course, the hostility cuts both ways. Who hasn't heard that well-worn gripe about pampered Gen-Y hires asking for more money and responsibility as they piss away the day on Facebook?
Here's the rub: Equal opportunity helped make us our own worst enemies. For the newest generation of working women, reared on Title IX and Take Our Daughters to Work Day, the glass ceiling is a relic of a bygone era, as irrelevant and outdated as fax machines and Wite-Out. Many of these fresh-out-of-school greenhorns have had no exposure to the kind of wink-wink sexual harassment — flagrant come-ons in the office, late-night "dinner" invitations from the boss — rampant just 15 years ago. As a result, they can't help but see their predecessors as hopelessly fixated on sexism in the office. Rhea Gibbons, the financial analyst, says her boss saw gender-based slights in even innocuous e-mails and "thought you had to be feminist about everything."
Another prominent complaint: She-bosses are tyrants who see their female charges as competition. Amy Snider, a 26-year-old New York attorney, says one of the powerful female partners at her white-shoe law firm is notorious for abusing women associates — ignoring their e-mails, making catty remarks in their reviews, and assigning massive projects on Friday nights. (Researchers have even coined a name for the phenomenon: Queen Bee Syndrome — the need for women bosses to preserve their power at all costs, even if it means throwing a few sisters under the bus along the way.) "I've never heard of her doing this to men," Snider fumes. "She finds us threatening because we have our whole lives ahead of us and haven't chosen a path yet."
That path — the 80-hour-week partner track — saw many seasoned professionals surrender to an all-consuming schedule. But it's unlikely their successors will have to sacrifice to that degree, as more companies embrace flexible work arrangements to retain talent. It's no wonder, then, that resentments are flaring. "On the one hand, they say to my face, 'I don't want your life,'" says Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of the Law. "But on the other, they expect me to be endlessly supportive of what they do, when in fact they verge on the impolite and judgmental."
Ironically, younger women say they also feel judged — by set-in-their-ways bosses who insist theirs is the only route to the top. "With some individuals there's a tendency to say, 'Well, I did it this way, so you should have to,'" says Anne Smyth, 32, a doctor at the University of Minnesota. She recounts a story about one of her superiors bragging to her attendees about giving rounds just four days after delivering her son. "I looked at her like she was crazy," rails Smyth.
Younger women also complain about the unprofessionalism that results when their female bosses blur personal and professional lines — "making friends" with female subordinates by inquiring about boyfriends and breakups. Over the course of a casual work lunch, it wouldn't be unusual for a chatty, probing boss to learn what an employee uses for contraception or if she ever had iffy Pap results, and the intimacy of that is bound to make subsequent business dealings awkward. (Just try giving a performance review to a subordinate after you've borrowed a tampon from her.) Of course, men routinely bend boundaries, too, with after-work beers and fantasy-football leagues. But sports talk is superficial by design, as fellas tend to live by the Corleone code of conduct: It's not personal, it's just business. For women, everything is personal, as when they precede work conversations with compliments on a colleague's hair or shoes, literally reaching out to have a feel of the fabric of a newly purchased blouse, as if to soften up the colleague for the sticky business conversation ahead. (A male superior could face a corporate rebuke for less.)
But before we give up all hope of working together harmoniously, recent research from Australia's University of Technology suggests that offices awash in powerful women can sometimes prove more nurturing to their up-and-comers, as women in charge feel comfortable instituting female-friendly office policies when surrounded by simpatico colleagues. That was 27-year-old Lisa Rosencrance's experience when, in 2004, she fled investment banking for the Gap's estrogen-packed corporate offices. An orchid welcomed her on her first day; watercooler chatter focused on American Idol, not Sunday Night Football. And there were deeper differences. Most of the moms left work by 5:30; her managers were expert multitaskers who turned around projects quickly. "You could do both there — you could be a mother and you could be a successful businesswoman," says Rosencrance.
Her experience is likely to become the norm once women have fully infiltrated the power suites. (Currently, they represent just 15 percent of the corporate officers among Fortune 500 firms, according to a recent report by Catalyst Research.) In the meantime, women of all generations should realize we have the potential to be each other's strongest workplace allies. Seriously, ladies, can't we all just get along?
Meredith Bryan is a staff writer for the New York Observer and a frequent Marie Claire contributor.