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The Underbelly of Women’s Culture

Two times this week I have facilitated a dialogue with women leaders on the topic of women working with other women. Specifically, we examined why it can be so difficult. Needless to say, I’m exhausted. However, what I’ve observed in both groups has me really intrigued and has given me the inspiration to keep this topic on the table with the women with which I interact. Despite my sweaty palms.

This is a tough topic. Most research on the matter concludes that is exactly why it is among the lists of “undiscussables” with women. From my own experience, it can bring up issues of shame, embarrassment, defensiveness, and most certainly denial. I’ve found this to be true for myself and most recently, I have observed this in other women engaging in the topic. What it requires is women to look at the “dirty underbelly” of female culture. There is an increasing amount of research on the topic of why women struggle to work with one another. The findings typically attribute it to three dynamics: how we are encultured as girls to deal with anger and conflict, the fact that we are often pitted against each other in the media and the challenges we face as we aspire to be leaders within a society that traditionally honors and rewards the masculine.

So sure, there are a lot of good reasons this is happening. And certainly, this is a really hard issue to explore as a group of women. But here is my concern: what if we don’t? What are the consequences for us as women if we don’t discuss this issue and begin to take ownership of our collective dynamics and perceptions? What then? My fear: more of the same. In fact, the research out there comes to the same conclusion: until women rise up address this within our own culture of women, we will find ourselves stuck and divided. More of the same.

From my experiences this week, I’m getting a bit clearer on the rub. What I’m noticing is when women don’t relate to the statistics and the stories that would paint this picture of “internalized sexism” – either because of their experiences or because of their own resistance to claim a rather unattractive issue – they tend to vehemently push away the topic as if it was a hot potato. Which it is. The problem is, who will catch it? And ironically, isn’t the very notion of “passing the potato” to another woman discounting the many, many voices of women who claim this issue is true and alive to them? Isn’t that in itself an act of judging and differentiating ourselves from other women?

And then there is the whole Law of Attraction thing… If we begin to focus on this topic as women and talk about it more, won’t that “draw it in” to us? So, in effect, we will be creating more of what we don’t want: divisiveness, disagreement, and conflict among women?

So what’s a woman to do? Simple, the research concludes: RISE UP and DO SOMETHING!!!! The bottom line, is that we need more women winning, than losing. We need to see the connections between our successes and our losses and resist the urge to just use our own perceptions and experiences to drive our actions (or inactions). We need to wrap our minds around the idea that when we find fault with another woman – or another woman does – the notion is reinforced that women are somehow faulty. And that includes you, whether you “deserve it” or not. So the invitation is to turn the tide – to somehow make it fashionable to be good to each other (which flies in the face of the current cultural mindset).

Specifically, here is what we can each do:
Become less judgmental about other women
Find common ground – we are more similar than different, so focus on that
Don’t allow the media, or anybody else for that matter, to define who you are.
Support women’s organizations with your involvement and/or your checkbook.
Mentor a younger woman–become an ally for another woman and support her success. Be an activist in ways that engages dialogue, not debate: invite curiosity, not judgment.

So what do you think? Let’s talk about this. And I’d ask you again: what are the consequences if we don’t? Isn’t it time?

5 comments to " The Underbelly of Women’s Culture "

  • The hardest conversations are the ones we most need to have. Kudos for raising the issue.

  • You would not believe that I watched this play out in two meetings today…

  • JRC

    We are our greatest enemy. I am harder on women than I am on men because I expect more from them. I truly believe that we have better ways to behave and be in the world and I am always devastated when a woman I respect acts in contradiction to my belief. I am equally disturbed when that woman is me.

  • Kim

    When reading this I thought that it was a bit unfair to assume that we tend to act against each other as women. I tried to think about how I may have encountered this behavior in the workplace specifically and came up with blanks. I thought, “no way, not me.” I then tried to think of all the women who supported me in life and in my career and felt the warmth of their encouragement. I wanted to believe that I had somehow bypassed this ugly reality. Then, one by one, examples started trickling into my mind of how I was indeed guilty of this behavior and a victim all at the same time. One example is…as a very young woman I once heard the expression “that woman would eat her young to get ahead.” I found it disturbing and very insulting. It was said to me by an older male manager in regards to a rising star and powerful woman in my workplace. I believe he may have felt threatened professionally by this individual and classified her as ruthless all because she was strong willed and opinionated. This description left me with the sensitivity that in order to be accepted and respected I needed to be “sweet and nice.” I spent too much time trying to hold things in to avoid being thought of as a “young eater.” I wanted to be considered a lady instead. Thank goodness I’ve grown and come to realize that while sweet and nice is good, it doesn’t always get to the point and reflect your true self. Being direct isn’t being ruthless. Getting your point across and calling a spade a spade doesn’t make you less of a lady. It makes you honest and a good leader.So yes, there are times when I catch myself judging other strong willed women, and when I allow my need to be liked to get in the way of speaking up. Shame on me. Shame on me for giving power to that expression by letting it influence my decisions to speak up. Thanks for shining the light on this. We ALL can do our part to support each other more boldly.

  • Cross posted from the MWF blog…Lael asks a fun question — what happens if we don’t address this issue? I think this scenario is worth investigating because, in general, scenarios are an interesting way to explore the importance and the ripple effect of any one issue.My scenario plays out a little like a scene from Witches of Eastwick — a film I love… the sexy slimy devil is foiled by the strength and passion of three big haired women. It’s definitely a role I can see myself playing (the big haired part). Sigh… I digress…In the scene, the women realize that they are all candidates for Jack’s affections and they begin turning on each other through some “back handed” aggression (Ha! I crack myself up… they are actually playing tennis in the scene). Suddenly, the sky cracks open. Hail the size of golf balls crashes down. Thunder clashes and lightening strikes.It’s a great metaphor for the underlying, almost spiritual, value created when women are working together. Women helping other women is not simply about making progress — helping other women get ahead, changing behaviors by modeling confidence in women’s work and women’s leadership, mentoring young women and helping them step into their full potential. These are all very important actions that will change the role of women in society. But we must also look at the cancerous energy created when women work against each other. This not only curtails positive energy, it erodes a progressive zeitgeist. We begin buying into negative propaganda, distrust flourishes, we stop thanking each other, holding doors, cheering each other on. We stop thinking the world can be a better place; we stop trying to make the world a better place. We begin looking out for our self-interests; we let greed be our motivation.Women helping women is the cornerstone of our social fabric. It’s more than just actions; it’s the energy force that fuels progress and our faith in humanity. We have to be vigilant in keeping this energy force positive. Because women not helping other women also creates energy — but the kind that destroys rather than creates.