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Tall poppy syndrome: New study says 90 per cent of women belittled, cut down in the workplace


A new study has found almost 90 per cent of women surveyed have experienced “tall poppy syndrome” in the workplace.

Tall poppy syndrome describes when people are attacked, resented or “cut down” because of their success and achievements.

The global survey by Women of Influence+ asked 4,710 women in workplaces around the world about their experiences and the effects.

“Many comments from the respondents, they shared that, 'I didn't know that my experience that I’m having has a name,” says study author and Women of Influence+ CEO Rumeet Billan.

The study found:

  • 77 per cent of respondents had their achievements downplayed
  • 72 per cent were left out of meetings and discussions or were ignored
  • 66 per cent said others took credit for their work

The results feel all-too-familiar among many women in business.

“I didn’t know it had a name, but I felt what it was,” says Halifax entrepreneur Solitha Shortte.

Shortte is the founder of model management company Soli Productions Management Inc., a business she started in 2015.

The former model now builds and supports a growing roster of diverse talents and says working in the highly-competitive fashion industry has been difficult.

“I came from the world of modeling, and in this industry, then transitioned now to being an agent, and being a creative director,” she says. “I’ve felt that.”

“I feel the exclusion as an agent being in a space where, one, I’m new, I’m a woman, and I’m Black,” she added. “Being a Black woman in this space adds even more challenges and more restrictions are placed on me.”

Billan says there are many causes.

“(There are) a number of contributing factors, including things like jealousy and envy,” she says. “We can also talk about sexism and gender stereotypes, and then there's the lack of confidence, and insecurity, in the person that it is doing the 'cutting.'”

She says many respondents also felt ageism was among the most common motivators for those exhibiting the behaviour.

The survey found men in leadership positions were more likely to undermine women due to their success and women were more likely to cut down their peers.

Respondents subsequently reported serious mental health effects as a result of being targeted, with more than 85 per cent reporting increased stress and 66 per cent feeling less self-confident at work.

“We're employees, we're employers, we're community leaders, and we have our personal lives. It happens in all these different settings, not just in the workplace,” says Faten Alshazly.

Alshazly is the co-founder and chief creative officer of award-winning advertising firm WeUsThem and has twice been named among Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women.

But even she has experienced having her achievements belittled by others, she says.

“It was a learning experience,” she says. “Because certain things you are blinded to, you don’t really understand the behaviour.”

Alshazly says it took her time to recover from the experience and use it as an inspiration to create change.

“In my own business, I’ve been fortunate to make sure that the culture here does not allow this to happen,” she says. “I want to see them grow.”

She encourages women to find workplaces that do the same for them.

“My biggest advice is, reach out for someone who is in a leadership role that you can speak to, if this place is not meant to appreciate who you are, there are so many that would appreciate and love to have talent,” she says.

Shortte says there are times when these negative experiences pull her down, but she moves forward with the help of those who do respect her work.

“I beat those things with the support that I have,” she says.

“Mentally, I have gone into deep depression where I wanted to shut down,” she says. “Then I realize that I have a space where I can use my voice as well, because of the supportive around me.”

Finding that support, Shortte says, is crucial.

“We’re standing on the backs of women who have gone through that and have succeeded, and I think we owe them to continue so that the next one … won’t have to stand on anybody’s backs (because) they would be accepted in the space and celebrated for the work they’re doing.” Top Stories

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