Exploding the myth of "the sisterhood"

17 February 2015 -


Feminism is blind to the fact that some of the biggest roadblocks to inspiring women are females themselves

Samantha Lyster

“Women should rule the world, but they do not. Why? Because women hate other women.” US actor and comic Chris Rock seems to have drawn a different conclusion to most feminists. Rock says the problem is of our own making. One might think the statement would be outrageous to most card-carrying feminists who are passionate about inspiring women – like me, for example. In fact, to an extent, I agree with him.

There is a problem of women indulging in “casual bitchiness”. Whether that is gossip, catty comments or emotionally manipulative behaviour, it all aims to pull the recipient down to raise the self-esteem of the perpetrator.

Occupational psychologist Dr Angela Carter says that this type of behaviour is natural in all human beings. Both men and women experience insecurity due to comparisons, and will look for flaws in the people they compare themselves to.

There is no denying there are males who engage in this behaviour – working in a newsroom full of men I have witnessed it first-hand. But the crux of the issue is this: when men bitch it does not weaken their overall position in the workplace and in society.

Women are simply not making the strides they should be. Despite 37 years of sex discrimination legislation, women are still such a novelty in the boardrooms of British businesses that the 30 Percent Club, an organisation that lobbies for more female roles, was established last year to address the issue. A 2011 management survey showed that 73% of female respondents felt barriers still existed for women seeking senior management and board-level positions in the UK. In contrast, just 38% of men believed there was a glass ceiling.

When women behave badly towards each other, they feed the insecurity that holds them back and promotes negative decision-making.

Entrepreneur Deirdre Bounds, founder of ethical travel agency i-to-i.com, and Amanda Geary, a lecturer in journalism at the University of the West of Scotland, both recall all-women social situations where they have felt uncomfortable with the atmosphere.

“It’s that gossiping around the coffee machine,” says Bounds. “There’s that temporary elevation but at the cost of someone else being pulled down. It takes a lot of self-awareness and confidence not to get sucked into it.”

This attitude pervades commerce. We see it in the headlines on the front pages of celebrity magazines – magazines where the editors are, in the main, women. High-flying women are regularly reported to be “in torment”, “on the edge” and “in crisis”. The underlying message is that females cannot handle their own success. So much for inspiring women.

Geary says that the lack of positive press around female role models prevents the forming of necessary solidarity.

“There is an increased focus on the self, and right now there is nothing to be gained from individualism,” she says. “To move forward we need to collaborate.”

Director of White Label Media, Gina Sharp, has worked in PR for 25 years. Unlike most sectors, the PR industry is dominated by women. Yet Sharp says that, even in a feminised workforce, women still fear they cannot hold on to senior roles.

She says, “My first boss was very tough on me because she wanted me to be better, and it has stood me in good stead ever since. Women are excellent at juggling, but, in general, seem to feel more easily threatened in their roles.”

In no way does the blame for this malaise lie solely with women. Yet as any war strategist will tell you, disquiet in the ranks threatens success.

What would a first victory look like? Perhaps an end to surveys that reveal two-thirds of workers prefer a male boss. When UKjobs.net polled 3,000 workers last year on the gender preference for a manager, only a third said they’d prefer a female boss. Worse, 63% of female respondents said they would prefer a male boss. Some 75% of men surveyed also expressed a preference for a male manager. Reasons given for wanting a male boss were that women were moody, incapable of leaving their personal lives outside the office, and more likely to backstab.

This is a perception of female managers that desperately needs challenging, says national chair of CMI’s Women in Management network Sandra Pollock.

Pollock argues that the source of the problem is that men still vastly outnumber women in certain management roles. Therefore every action of female managers is amplified, and their failings stand out more too.

The solution, Pollock suggests, is to give these women more mentoring so they do not feel isolated, feel less insecure in their decisions and can learn management skills in a supportive environment.

“Businesses need to set standards of acceptable behaviour and see any breaches of this as opportunities to work on weak points, regardless of gender.”

There is also the case for sex-specific mentoring. Amanda Herbert, co-director of the marketing agency Syren, attributes her success to a female mentor who helped to nurture her talent and confidence.

“I don’t think a man would have done the same thing,” she says. “I have had experience of male managers who didn’t even see my potential.”

CMI’s Women in Management is one of many networking associations aimed at supporting women. Others include Aquitude and the Women in Business Network.

By creating a culture of mutual trust and respect, their brand of sisterhood promotion is just what we might need to quash “Queen Bee” syndrome – women who smash through the ceiling and pull the ladder up behind them.

Research by the University of Cincinnati found female bosses are inclined to obstruct other women at work. The question is, why?

Maggie Berry, managing director of IT recruitment agency Women in Technology, has one theory.

“These women have had to fight to get to where they are. They think, ‘It wasn’t easy for me, so why should I help anyone else?’ “I would argue that that is precisely why they should help other women, so that the next generation do not have to work twice as hard as men to prove themselves.”

Yet if we are to move forward, there is more work to be done – and this involves being honest about the way women treat each other.

As Bounds says: “Ask yourself if what you are saying or doing is right for the organisation and for you. Because all behaviour comes back to you in the end.”

Image courtesy of Dean Drobot / Shutterstock.

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