I was chatting with my guy Shannon about dropping the first episode of this podcast, and describing it as telling the story of all the ways I’ve seen women bosses be shitty to other women. He laughed and said “Oh! The Bitch Above!” and the episode title was born.
Now, even though The Bitch Above is singular, I’m not referring to a single person. It’s shorthand for those shitty women bosses we’ve all probably had. You know the ones – the mean girls who grew up but didn’t grow out of their shitty ways of treating other people – especially other women.
I’m not too keen on spending much time talking about other people’s failures. But my ongoing encounters with the bitch above has been such a constant, recurring theme in my professional life that I have found myself, for years now, wanting revenge. Sometimes, in dark moments, I wanted revenge against a particular person. But eventually, I got past (most of) my Pulp-Fiction style feelings of righteous vengeance and found myself wanting something bigger and better.
A kind of superhero, systemic revenge.
I wanted to do something so big and so powerful that it would put everything right in the world. And once I got that point…well, that’s when this new project of mine started to really take on a life of its own.
So The Bitch Above is basically backstory. It provides some context for why I started The Clareo Group and helps explain why it’s so important to me that women bosses use their powers for good.
OK. The backstory.
Let’s begin with a scene that will likely sound familiar to some of you.
Picture a highly competent, whip-smart grad student, earning her degree from a top-tier department so toxic that she vows never, ever, EVER to become a tenure-track faculty member because who in their right mind would choose to spend their professional lives with people like this? Ugh.
So this grad student shifts to administration, finishes her PhD, and takes a full-time job at a university as a program director. Her star is on the rise, she has amazing mentors, and every new job is a step up the administrative ladder. Soon her professional network is mostly deans, provosts, CFOs, and college presidents. A few presidents offer to mentor her into a presidency. One spring she is swamped with job offers, and takes the one that speaks to her heart: a dean. A dean at a women’s college.
One of my favorite things about this backstory is how I experienced all this with confidence. I knew – I could feel in my bones – that I was made for this. I was made to reach these heights. I was encouraged to be ambitious by my grandmother, who in the ’70s refused to let me choose “teacher” as a profession and required me to dream bigger. So I did, and it worked. For years the world seemed to recognize and reward my ambition. In all my jobs got great performance reviews, promotions, raises – the whole thing.
But here’s the reality check to my nice, steady, career climb. You know those memes with two lines – one squiggling all over the place, and one a steady upward trajectory? Where the squiggly line is your life as it feels as you’re living it, and the steady straight line is the way it looks to everyone else? I just told you the nice tidy version of my early career.
Here’s the squiggly version of it.
I’m an ambitious, outspoken feminist, who, in grad school, starts seeing women treat others badly.
There was the faculty member who screamed humiliations at one of her graduate students in the stairwell, which at the time was full of other students on their way to class.
The faculty member who told her advisee to get an abortion because she wouldn’t succeed as a scholar and a mother.
The faculty member who, when one of her advisees told her excitedly about her job offer on her first year on the market, responded that it was OK, she could move to a better job, at a better school, next time.
So here I was, seeing the grown up mean girls in action. And I was naive, so I sort of assumed this was a faculty issue. These women faculty members were obviously insensitive, rude, and maybe even clueless – but not intentionally mean. Right?
Eventually, though, i’m glad to leave such nonsense behind because I’ve landed a dream job. I’m going to be a dean at a women’s college! At a college specifically committed to developing women leaders! What could be better?
But let me tell you. When I started working for women’s colleges – and honestly, even before then, when I started working for college presidents who are women – well, all those squiggly lines in my career? They got a whole lot squigglier. And shittier. I saw how awful it is when women in clear leadership positions are intentionally cruel to other women.
I got to know the president known for “shaming and blaming” her staff. That’s not my phrase – that’s how her staff described her.
I heard stories about the provost who frequently hurled obscenities at her staff. You know, the kind of angry swearing you can hear outside the office and down the hall.
I met the president who brushed off difficulties of any sort by saying “Well, at least no babies died” – in a room full of other women, at least some of whom were statistically likely to have experienced pregnancy loss.
I started to avoid the president whose staff dreaded “the summons,” knowing they were about to be loudly and probably publicly dressed down for something that probably wasn’t their fault or even their responsibility.
These stories suck, right? They are terrible. Everyone in these women’s paths suffered. When these women cross your professional path nothing protects you: not your age, your sex, your gender identity, your politics, your values. Not even your toughened, thick skin.
I would like to say these stories shocked and upset me. It’s true they were shocking when I first started collecting them. But over time I got used to them. Or rather, I got used to hearing them. They quit surprising me.
But the slow simmer had started. What in the WORLD were these women doing, treating other women like this? I mean, had they not heard of that special place in hell reserved for women who don’t help other women?
Nope. Not these women.
Even worse? These women were leading organizations devoted to educating young women for lives of meaning, growth, and integrity. They were supposed to be beacons of light for young women finding their voices and finding their ways. They were supposed to be educating women to lead and influence.
But these shitty women leaders – these “bitches above”? They were not beacons of light. No. I came to see them as having big black holes where their hearts should be.
The longer I lived in this world, the more two things crystallized for me. The first is how many women were suffering under a bitch above them. This was sad, and also, honestly, super interesting. I started to see that these women leaders were protected by a cone of silence – our silence. People were afraid to say things out loud, to share their stories. But once I was known as someone who would say stuff out loud, the stories started pouring in. It was a professional, somewhat sanitized version of #MeToo, where women I’d never met were so relieved that someone who shared their experiences was listening and talking that they would call me, send emails, connect through friends, acquaintances, attorneys. So. Many. Women.
The other thing that crystallized for me was how important it is that we see and celebrate those amazing women who are leading well. Those women who care about people, who lift other women up, who stand strong in their integrity and values.
And that is at the heart of my new project, The Clareo Group.
I founded The Clareo Group out of selfishness: I want a place free from the cruelty imposed by the bitches above, and I realized that I should quit looking for it and just build it.
So I founded The Clareo Group to create a space where women come to lift each other up.
Here we don’t shy away from the truth and we are not afraid to call out bad leadership. But when we do that, we do it on our way to making the world better for women who are suffering, and who want and deserve something more..
Because so many of us have spent time in the noxious waters created by the bitches above, we come here to celebrate women who want something different. Who want something different badly enough to change their own circumstances, as well as the circumstances of women around them.
So what does that mean for this podcast? This space is for all women in higher ed who are living in leadership roles. Regardless of your job title, regardless of your pay grade – if you’re a woman leading others in any capacity – a team, a committee, a department, a program, a group of students – whatever – you are welcome here.
We’ll do two things together. The first is talk about women leading in higher ed. We’ll explore both research and lived experiences to understand the factors at play in our institutional cultures, and uncover ways – large and small – that we can bring joy and integrity into our daily work. The second thing we’ll do together is learn from women leading in higher ed. I’ve got an exciting lineup of interviews for this season, which we’ll kick off this coming fall.
But The Clareo Group is more than just a podcast: it’s a space for communal learning and growth. And this is what I’m most excited about: our chance to start truly building community.
In July, I’ll be launching The Leadership Academy. The Leadership Academy is a three-week, fully online, self-paced course teaching you how to draw on your values in order to infuse your leadership with clarity, purpose, and joy.
If you’re looking for a more personal touch, The Leadership Community provides all the content of The Leadership Academy PLUS engagement with other participants in a private community space, as well as weekly office hours where we’ll gather in real-time to ask each other questions and lend each other support.
If this is even a teensy bit interesting to you, come on in and add your name to the waitlist. That way I can let you know when The Leadership Academy is about to open. PLUS, as a special THANK YOU for your interest, I’ll send you an early bird registration code that gives folks on the waitlist a special discount. This will be a bigger discount than I ever plan to offer again, and I’d love for you to be able to take advantage of it. Click here to add your name to the waitlist.
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