Do women criticise each other?
I've hesitated to publish this blog because I don't want to contribute to the myths, misinformation and misogyny that already exists for women with leadership aspirations.
"She's a nag" - nope, she's the Chief Risk Officer
"She's a gold digger" - well she works in a gold mine, so yes, but not for the reasons you're inferring
"She's a ball-breaker " - yet there is no equivalent term for a tough guy
Rightly or wrongly, women also have a reputation for criticising or penalising other women - being catty, bitchy, or overtly negative towards their female peers or subordinates.
But is this true? Is this perception encouraged simply as an exclusionary tactic, a diversionary blame game, or a way of keeping (other) women in their place?
So I've decided to air the topic, rather than hide from it - to help you make up our own mind about how to react, behave or respond when you hear that women criticise other women, you find yourself in a situation where you are critiquing others for things other than objective performance measures or perhaps when you are feeling threatened by a more ambitious junior staffer who appears to be challenging you.
Queen Bee Syndrome
Historically, and unfortunately still far too commonly, the traits valued in the rarified air of the C-suite were assertiveness, combativeness and competitiveness. The women who get to the top are rewarded for those more masculine traits.
There was even a name given to the more extreme elements, the Queen Bee Syndrome,whereby some women made their way to the top, then deliberately held other women back.
The phrase was repurposed by a Dutch psychologist, Naomi Ellemers, who examined the lack of senior level women in academia. She had assumed that it was men keeping women out of senior roles. What she discovered was the few women in senior roles were equally, if not more, exclusionary. Scarcity of opportunities drove even more competitive and assertive behaviours.
The phrase took, and has possibly become an overused label when dealing with resistance towards our career from women in power.
I suspect too that we've all had a female boss at some time in our career who we remember as being tough as nails, harder on women than men, and certainly not one to be "throwing back the net" let alone "throwing down the ladder" for other talented women in the organisation.
But was her behaviour more memorable because -
She was a female boss and still relatively unique?
Had she become more tough on other women because she didn't want to be seen as favouring other women?
She was simply unaware of the impact her behaviours and tactics had on her female staff because no-one had called her out on it?
Another option might be that our memorable female boss who didn't favour other women in upper echelons of her work environment, was in survival mode, in a highly competitive, combative and assertive world where everyone was waiting for her to fail?
Or a combination of all four?
Add into the mix the stereotype for women to be inclusive, collaborative and supportive - so we hold our female boss to a higher standard than we might do her male peers - and you have a recipe for pejorative name calling even if there are elements of truth in it. The stereotype effectis a strong driver.
As Madeleine Albright famously said
"There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women."
We get it. I'm not excusing bullying tactics by any means. But sometimes people are caught in a cycle of stereotypes, expectations, limiting beliefs and fear that keeps them stuck behaving in ways that are distinctly unhelpful to not only other women, but themselves as well.
Studies have indicated that when professional women believe there’s only room at the top for a few, they will bully and undermine their female colleagues and employees.
Additionally, according to a 2016 study in The Academy of Management Journal, senior-level women who champion younger women are more likely to get negative performance reviews.
Definitely a case of damned when you do, and another damned when you don't.
No-one said it would be easy to get to the top, and once again, no-one was right.
The socialisation of women and girls is also frequently focused on outward appearance. I grew up being indoctrinated by Dolly magazine, didn't you? And it's worse for young girls today. This can lead to comparing, judging, and critiquing, often from a perspective of not measuring up. The dark-side of this is that in tearing others down, we feel we build ourselves up in some way. Yet the reverse is more likely to be true.
The end result is that women who become more visible, find themselves more vulnerable, not just from attacks by men, but also other women.
Critiquing starts small
Recently, I participated on a magical, mystery, bus tour with around 20 other entrepreneurs. It was a heap of fun on a hot summers day and we were all being deliberately pushed way out of our comfort zone with new people and new experiences.
Most of my fellow passengers were smart, entrepreneurial women, possibly even a more competitive by the very nature of their work.
On this tour I experience that "aha" moment. It was the end of a long, adventurous day and I heard from the seat behind me, two of the women beginning to critique other women on the sidewalk for their appearance.
And let me reiterate, we were all tired so less aware or mindful of our behaviours.
I blew a mental gasket, then called out the behaviour.
Eleanor Roosevelt may have said “You wouldn't worry so much about what others think of you if you realised how seldom they do.” But perhaps she hadn’t hung out in a bus with a group of other women trying to stand out or compete with each other!!
Unfortunately this criticising others appearance is not unusual and no-one sees it as a problem. For women in public life, the constant critiquing of their appearance, mannerisms and other personal attributes is a way of life, and this is from supporters, not necessarily Trolls.
It’s a socially acceptable habit we all indulge in. A hobby. And I wonder what it will take for us to stop.
Why is this a problem?
It’s a temporary distraction - if women are busy criticising each other for seemingly trivial things, we aren’t focused on where the action is really at
It might temporarily make you feel good about yourself - but long term, it damages your own confidence as you wonder if others will be critiquing you when you take a stand or stand out for any reason.
It causes unnecessary friction and slows things down - if you're serious about your career and taking it to the next level, or you have an agenda you'd like to drive in your organisation, but you're then sidetracked by worries about what other people will think of you, you'll definitely take longer to launch.
It can trigger shame - women on the end of unnecessary criticism of a personal nature often feel embarrassment, guilt or shame