Women admittedly still face some uphill battles, especially in the workplace. Those challenges are at least some of the reason behind the March on Washington and Day Without a Woman. But according to new research from the United Kingdom, women might just be their own worst enemy when it comes to feeling confident and good enough.

A look at "looking"

Dr. Sarah Riley, Reader in Psychology, is investigating body image development as a social process. She reports that a previous study revealed that women felt judged by virtually everyone they made contact with, from close friends to complete strangers. Riley's new work honed in on the looks women receive and give each other. To get a sense of the extent of how ladies feel and treat each other through this nonverbal communication, undergraduate student Audrie Schneller asked female students to text her when they received or gave a look.

The results aren't pretty.

In 18 of the 34 reports (about 53 percent), women said they received looks they considered to be judgmental, or which made them feel awkward. Interview comments similarly supported the idea that women judge each other on factors like appearance. 11 texts referenced looks that made the recipient feel happy or appreciative. The remaining 5 texts were neutral.

"Our data show that this sense-making--[that is, using mean looks to convey aggression]--exists beyond school and into early adulthood, shaping the way that women understand other women, and expressed through practices of looking, so that for some of our participants, a supportive stranger was unimaginable."

Schneller adds, "When the other students discussed their experiences, it made them realize how often they looked or felt looked at in a judgmental way. They were really surprised to see what a critical culture we live and participate in. Even though I expected it, it's still shocking to see the pressure young women put on one another."

Translating the study to the workplace

Riley's study has some limitations. The sample sizes of participants and text responses are small, for example, and more work would be necessary to examine how much (if any) the results vary according to region. It might be that, in some regions, women are harsher or kinder to each other than in others due to cultural differences. Even so, the research has specific implications for businesses. For instance, consider that

  • Women might not be as vocal in meetings if they feel judged or inferior to other women as the meeting takes place.
  • Women might spend break time "fixing" their appearance to compete with other women, rather than truly relaxing and letting their bodies and minds recuperate. They might get less sleep than male peers, rising earlier to go through beauty routines to ensure they look equally as good (or better than) other women.
  • Women might be distracted by the looks they receive from other women and thereby fail to note or remember important details during meetings or other events. They might continue to worry about the negative looks through the day and perform less than optimally as a result.
  • Women might spend more to achieve what they perceive to be a competitive look, even as they earn only about 80 percent of what men make.
  • Men (and women) in positions of authority might perceive women who give each other negative looks as "catty" or lacking the social skills necessary to be good team members or leaders, opting to pass them over when opportunities for advancement are available.
  • Human resources representatives might need to resolve disputes that arise from the way women are interpreting looks from each other. That could take resources away from other HR tasks.

Riley's recommendations

Considering the results of the research, Riley offers the following recommendations for women:

1) Try and assume the best. For example, looks aren't necessary negative, and they could be admiring or simply someone lost in thought.

2) Remember to give yourself and other women positive looks and comments and enjoy a compliment if it comes your way.

3) Challenge the idea that dressing up is where women's power lies.

But the real key might just be calling out the looks and bringing the issue out in the open. Both men and women can articulate what they see and feel about woman-to-woman interactions, and both men and women can push corporate culture and policies of safety, cooperation and equality. For the wellbeing of your company, it's very much a discussion worth having.