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Connecting women and opportunity

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Exploring Difficult Work Relationships Within and Across Gender: Professor Jennifer Merluzzi, George Washington University School of Business

Professor Jennifer Merluzzi is based at the George Washington University and she specialises in research into the early careers of professional managers, as well as labour market inequality. She conducts studies into the role of individual identity in influencing and affecting labour market outcomes, such as promotions, job offers or compensation. Prior to working in academia, Jennifer’s professional background includes roles in general management, where she ran a regional call-centre and managed supply chain operations at McMaster-Carr Industrial Supply Company, as well as working in management consulting both at Keane Consulting Group and as an independent consultant.

Professor Jennifer-Merluzzi - George Washington School of Business
Professor Jennifer Merluzzi

“…it frustrated me to see women depicted as the source of their unequal outcomes…”

Exploring organisational change, careers and inequality

I am a professor in the Strategic Management and Public Policy group of the George Washington University School of Business. Prior to this role, I worked at the A.B. Freeman School of Business at Tulane University as a professor in their management group. I received my Ph.D. in Organizations & Markets at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. Before academia, I worked in management consulting and general management.

My interest in researching labour markets and management topics came from my time in the workforce, especially as a consultant where I was involved in many organisational change initiatives. I was continually surprised at how ineffective firms were in managing their people during these changes and was intrigued in the topic.

So, I was a bit atypical to go back to school later in my career, but the practical work experience has been a benefit – both in teaching and in research of topics. Since then, my interests have stemmed into careers and this has led me to topics on inequality.

My role on a day to day basis

Washington DC

Day to day is different depending on whether I’m teaching or researching. I currently teach the core Strategy / Strategic Management course to MBAs. I have taught undergraduates and full time, part time and executive MBAs. I also have taught a course on Social Capital / Networks and Strategic Leadership to graduate business students.

When I’m not teaching, I conduct research. Right now, I – along with a colleague at Columbia University, Damon Phillips – am working on a project that tracks two cohorts of MBA graduates from a top-ranked business school across their early careers. We are observing different outcomes around mobility (both across and within firm).

It allows us to uniquely test and answer many questions – such as on inequality, but also on how individuals construct their careers and how this leads to different career outcomes. I’m also working on another project that spans 60 years of women graduates from a top-ranked graduate business school (1938-1998) and their careers through to today. That project is still under data collection.

Research into Exploring Difficult Work Relationships Within and Across Gender

Thanks for your interest in this research. The data came out of my dissertation, but I had not looked at it initially for gender implications. Originally, I was interested in how individual’s networks affected / influenced organisational exit. There is a newfound interest in social network research on negative ties as well and so I was hoping to contribute to this scholarship through this data.

In my study, a ‘negative tie’ simply means the answer to the question: “Of the many employees with whom you have worked, who has been the most difficult or uncooperative to work with?” After leaving space for a single name, respondents were asked, “Why?” followed by a blank (150-word limit).

A few years ago, I had read an article in the popular business press on “career women at war” and it frustrated me to see women depicted as the source of their unequal outcomes. I knew I had this data and wanted to see what I could find. So, originally, I looked for “queen bee syndrome” type findings – of which I found no evidence. No matter how I cut the data, I did not see that women (with more power – informal or formal) were the subject or source of negative ties with other women at these two firms. However, in the process of looking I started seeing some interesting other effects – which led to this paper.

Exploring same-sex negative ties

Female-colleaguesWhen I asked employees to name their (one) most difficult colleague, I found that women are more likely to cite other women than they are to cite men or no one at all. There were not similar odds of same-sex difficult relationships between men. However, I further found that for women who also cited having more women as supportive work colleagues (friends, individuals they talked to about a confidential issue), this tendency for female same-sex conflict went down. I did not find similar findings between men or across gender.

While my data does not allow me to pinpoint the precise explanation (mechanism) behind this, I did a number of other analyses with the data at hand. For example, I also asked respondents to explain “why” they named the individual they did as difficult and I found that these same-sex negative ties between women were not contextually different in terms of being more emotional or personal in describing the difficulty.

That is, I didn’t find evidence that women were more “catty” in these same-sex conflicts than men. I also did not find evidence that same-sex conflict between women was related to subsequent near-term exit from the firm (i.e., there was no link to retention issues in my data).

Sheryl Sandberg’s “The Myth of the Catty Woman” and the queen bee syndrome: Catty women and queen bees – problems in the workplace?

Well, from my data I do not see evidence of it, although that is not what I tested. I looked at simply gender combinations of negative relationships – not the power differences which belie the queen bee syndrome.

The queen bee syndrome comes from much older work (Staines et al. 1974) and argues that in situations where women are very few in number (male-dominated organisations), those women who advance will fight to preserve their spot as a token female in power and inherently relate more to the senior men, resulting in them adopting the gender stereotypes of their male colleagues.

LionessesThe result is that these senior women are tougher on junior women than even senior men would be or that these senior women would be to junior men. However, the evidence has been largely anecdotal or, mixed in reality. For example, some evidence shows that women working in male-dominated, prestigious work groups were less likely to select other women to join the group (Duguid 2011; Duguid et al. 2012).

Yet, others – notably Shepard and Aquino (2013;2014) as well as Sandberg’s work – contend the problem is over-problematised. It is notably a difficult thing to test because ideally you would have a mix of workplaces (male-dominated, female-dominated, equal) to compare and finding an organisation that is not male-dominated at the senior levels is quite difficult.

Potential learnings to reduce conflict and difficult relationships at work

The practical implications of this is that work is increasingly organised using informal groups. Many firms are cognizant about making these groups diverse. What this research suggests is that there are ways to help identify potential trouble spots ahead of time in selecting the mix of individuals for these groups. It also suggests that for women (this did not apply to men in my study), creating ways to foster support ties among other women is beneficial in reducing conflict and difficult relationships at work.



  • Duguid MM (2011) Female tokens in high-prestige work groups: Catalysts or inhibitors to group diversification? Organ. Behav. Hum. Dec. Proc. 116(1):104–115. 
  • Duguid MM, Loyd DL, Tolbert PS (2012) The impact of categorical status, numeric representation, and work group prestige on preference for demographically similar others. Organ. Sci. 23(2):386–401. 
  • Shepard, L. D., Aquino, K. (2013) “Much Ado about Nothing? Observers’ Problematization of Women’s Same-Sex Conflict at Work” Academy of Management Perspectives, 27(1): 52-62. 
  • Shepard, L. D., Aquino, K. (2014) “Sisters at Arms: A Theory of Same-Sex Conflict and its Problematization in Organizations” Journal of Management, 43(3): 691-715. 
  • Staines G, Tavris C, Jayaratne TE (1974) The queen bee syndrome. Psych. Today 7(8):55–60.

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