While I was in Copenhagen with the AYLI delegation, attending the Women Deliver conference, the final episode of The Bachelor aired on New Zealand television: perhaps the most concise and dispiriting articulation of female-on-female competition in our society, at least that I can think of. This show in many ways epitomises the pervasive social message that women are, and should be, rivals. What manifests as ‘cattiness’ – the theatrical eye-rolling at another woman’s choice of cocktail dress, for example – is in fact an example of the internalised ‘male gaze’, when women judge each other on how well they live up to a socially-acceptable imagining of feminine appearance and behaviour. Anyone who has seen Mean Girls knows that however much we might talk about the abstract ‘societal norms’ placed on girls and adolescents, young women are some of the cruellest enforcers of these norms, policing the behaviour of their peers with rumour, exclusion and derision.
These may seem like petty examples, but they are the popular culture reflection of a deeper truth. Women compete with one another: for scholarships, for jobs, for opportunities, but pervasively and most troublingly, for the attention of men. Even in mixed-gender environments, I am most conscious of my female rivals, because if you can’t be ‘the best’, you can at least be ‘the best girl’. At its heart, this is a fundamentally sad phenomenon, as I firmly believe that (to speak colloquially), sisters should be building sisters up, not shutting sisters down. You may have heard of ‘Queen Bee syndrome’, when a woman in power is more critical of her female subordinates, perhaps curtailing potential challengers before they have the chance to establish themselves. Given that so few high-ranking positions are realistically open to women, there is a sense of a ‘race to the top’, a perceived need to elbow other women out of the way in fierce competition driven by the imposed limitations of women’s advancement; socially, professionally, personally.
I know I have often felt threatened by the achievements of other women. Knowing high-achieving women can sometimes feel like you’re always running, always behind. We are always striving for superlatives: the smartest, the prettiest, the funniest, the sexiest, the best. I am fortunate to count many wonderful, successful women amongst my dear friends, but sometimes it is hard to avoid the comparisons we are conditioned to draw between ourselves and our female classmates or colleagues, from a young age. I’ve seen female friendships crumble under the weight of these comparisons and the envy they inspire. Being part of the AYLI delegation with nine other genuinely extraordinary young women has been a major turning point for me in this respect. I have learned to celebrate my fellow delegate’s achievements and strengths, without the sharp pang of shame for not having done it first or better.
Recently, a good friend of mine challenged me to reconsider how I communicate with other women. Those who know me will be aware that I am a very direct person, and not someone to shy away from confrontation. It is not uncommon for me to begin a sentence with ‘I disagree with you on that…’ This friend, who has considerable experience working in an all-female environment, suggested I soften my approach when talking with other women. My instinctive reaction was defensive: why should I change my way of speaking, why should I adopt a soft, passive turn of phrase, just because I am female? Why should I trade in my direct, ‘masculine’ statements for something more appropriately feminine, but which to me seemed to beat around the bush?
Her reason was that the mode of communication I choose will affect others. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with being direct, this approach may discourage other women in the group from participating, meaning overall the discussion becomes narrower, less welcoming. We often talk of creating a ‘safe space’ for women to voice their opinions, free from the alpha-male jostling which permeates so many boardrooms and departmental meetings. Perhaps I was unwittingly countering the creation of such a ‘safe space’; in my eagerness to make my own voice heard, was I preventing others from contributing? I resolved to be more aware in future, to ask not if I was being heard, but how I was making others feel. The clarity of my communication is not always the most important thing, particularly in a group context where we are all working collectively towards a shared goal. Working towards gender equity and female emancipation is not a solo fight: the work ahead is long, and we will need all of our collective strength.
In a plenary on ‘Powerful Women’, I was particularly struck by the (beautifully soft-spoken) words of Toyin Ojora Saraki: ‘Why can’t I be my sister’s keeper? Why must I suffer something to want to change it for the better?’ These words speak to the centrality of empathy in the feminist mission today. I am a privileged woman, my experience is radically different to many other women worldwide. But this does not mean that I cannot stand in solidarity, that I cannot fight for their voices to be heard. This is an important distinction – I cannot speak for them, but I can promote their right to speak for themselves. I can ask the questions which will give them a platform to share their views, experiences, and struggles. Formally speaking, this relates to the concept of ‘intersectionality’, and entails a recognition that women’s experiences are not homogenous, but are shaped by many other overlapping facets of identity.
Ultimately, it is a question of respect. Acknowledging and respecting each other’s differences, opinions, identities, preferences and experiences creates a bedrock of mutual understanding and support, which is essential for any joint endeavour. Inclusivity and diversity are key: when women start viewing one another as allies rather than rivals, then we can move forward together. Another gem from the WD2016 closing plenary came from Kate Gilmore: ‘You don’t have to like me to respect my rights.’ Women are a rich and diverse group, and you do not have to like us all. But we all deserve your respect. Inevitably, the fact of being female will sometimes be insufficient to endear me to other women, and vice versa. Sisterhood does not mean we all have to be the best of friends, all the time. But it does mean that we have a common cause, and this common cause should surpass our individual differences.
All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute.