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Musings from the C-Suite: Rumors Now vs. Then

A Millennial member of one of my networking groups for C-level women recently posted in our WhatsApp chat that women must stick together and help each other. She was upset because a former colleague of hers had been wrongly accused of having an affair with a senior manager at her company.

My Millennial friend wrote about how the gossip disparaged this woman’s stellar career and she bemoaned how unjust and unfair it is. Other Millennial members of the group then posted their consternation about women gossiping about each other and how damaging it is.

The rallying cry is a familiar one, “Empowered women empower women.”

Photo by Nick Collins on Unsplash

As a member of Generation X, when I first entered the workforce, women still had a reputation for elbowing each other out of the way, as opposed to lifting each other up. C-level jobs were occupied by white men. When one woman got a senior-level job, it meant other women could not move up the ranks because the rarity of a female getting one of those positions meant no one else could possibly break through.

That situation led to a lot of backstabbing in the dog-eat-dog corporate world of the 1980s and 90s. It was a period when highly educated, ambitious women were still living in a business environment that clung to 1960s and 70s ideas about who should have a seat at the table.

I achieved high-level positions in Hollywood in my late-20s and early-30s. But every time I went to a new company, I was rumored to be sleeping with the CEO or a male officer of the company. The implication being that a beautiful woman could not possibly have gotten a senior position unless she was having sex with a man who was in charge. Years later, when I was getting divorced, the rumor was that my marriage broke up because I was having an affair with one of my subordinates. Thankfully, my soon-to-be-ex-husband believed me and knew it wasn’t true.

I shared that story on the group WhatsApp chat, and the Millennial members were shocked and saddened by the constant rumors that I dealt with as a young executive. I told them that women spreading malicious gossip about other women was part of the culture in corporate America at the time. It was one of those practices that is unacceptable but was accepted.

After I posted my story, I watched the messages of support and cries for “girl power” flood the chat room. Like the Baby Boomer hippies 50 years before, Millennials are often maligned for the ideas and ideals they bring into the business world. But it takes a new generation to look at unacceptable business practices through a different lens in order for the rest of us to say that it is no longer acceptable.

Joanna Dodd Massey is C-level communications executive, author & corporate speaker, board director and adjunct professor at Columbia University. Her upcoming book, "Musings from the C-Suite: Philosophies on Leadership and Life" will be published next spring. Previous books include: "Communicating During a Crisis" and "Culture Shock: Surviving Five Generations in One Workplace."


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