The Devil Wears Prada
“Women just don’t support other women”: we hear that statement in a lot of WOW planning sessions and discussions. Everyone who says this has an anecdote to report – even as you read, you may be remembering your personal version of this experience.
It’s a topic that has filled a lot of internet space, especially since Hillary Clinton lost the US Presidential election, and a whole stack of white women – whose support she might have expected - voted for Donald Trump.
If we take this claim at face value, we find a slew of apparently reasonable explanations:
· Women are raised to see themselves as competing – for a partner, resources, influence– to be prettier, taller, slimmer, smarter – no wonder they behave as if success is a scarce commodity, not to be shared lightly;
· Some women- and perhaps especially those in the most male dominated worlds – find it expedient to distance themselves from female stereotypes about caring for family, supporting other women - just to ‘fit in’;
· In any unequal system, some of the disenfranchised will align themselves with the powerful oppressor, because it is the only way they can be safe, and garner the crumbs of survival. (If you haven’t already done so, take a look at The Hand Maid’s Tale).
But here’s the question - is it actually the case that women don’t support women, or is that just another one of those beliefs that don’t stand too much interrogation?
Fact: the world is awash with extraordinary stories of women whose life’s work has been to support women – treating women’s diseases (Catherine Hamlin), bringing contraception and family planning to communities everywhere (Marie Stopes), exposing at great personal cost stories about rape in war (Jan Ruff O’Herne ), working towards uniting women of all ages in the Torres Strait (Mura Kosker Sorority Incorporated), risking their lives campaigning for women’s education (Malala Yousafzi ). That hardly scratches the surface, and it doesn’t even get down to the millions of local community organisations run by women for women – think Sisters Inside, CWA, Soroptimists, Second Chance…
Fact: at the more mundane level of the contemporary workplace, there is evidence to show that women do indeed support one another. When women work with a higher percentage of women they experience lower levels of gender discrimination and harassment. When women have female supervisors, they report receiving more family and organizational support than when they have male supervisors. And a preponderance of studies show that when more women are in management positions, the gender pay gap is smaller. (Marianne Cooper in The Atlantic,)
Is it just possible that once again, we’re being hi-jacked by stereotypes?
Women are supposed to be caring, collaborative, and compliant. So what happens when their behaviour doesn’t fit that yardstick? They are branded: not just as individuals choosing their own unique paths, but as somehow exemplifying their whole gender. “When men battle it out, they are seen as engaging in healthy competition and vigorous debate. When women do the same things, they are Mean Girls locked in a heated catfight”. (The Establishment).
So who does this particular stereotype serve?
Ultimately, the assumption that women are hateful to other women just serves to uphold existing power structures. It enables women to be overlooked for leadership roles at all levels from Prime Minister down to workplace teams; it deflects attention from the real challenges to women’s safety and oppression; and it shifts some of the blame for women’s lack of progress (especially in leadership and public roles) onto other women. Neat, huh?
Do all women deserve my unthinking support, just because they are women? Well, of course not.
But they all, without exception, deserve to be considered as individual human beings, with complex personal stories, multiple layers of advantage and disadvantage, and normal human strengths and weaknesses: not as archetypal examples of a gender stereotype - or any other stereotype - for that matter.
Perhaps this would be a good way to support other women?
Photos below, Left to Right:
WOW London 2016 (photo credit Jenny Sealy)
WOW Australia Brisbane Think In 2017
WOW Australia Lockhart River Think In 2017