How my journey has helped me become more aware of the unfair social dynamics that women use against each other and how easily we can stop doing it.
Whenever I tune into any sort of social media, I feel like I am constantly bombarded with images of men and women that are there to make me feel inadequate. It’s easy enough to place the blame on celebrities, but we are all guilty of posting to the world a snapshot of our lives that only represent a fraction of who we are as a whole person.
All too often, we are left passing harsh judgement on ourselves for not living up to the impossible standards that our fascination with social media offers and allowing ourselves to pass judgement on others, often unfairly. It leaves us emotionally vulnerable to feeling anxious, depressed and unworthy.
But it begs the question, why do women feel the need to compete and bring each other down?
I think every woman has had experience with either being made to feel isolated or been guilty of perpetuating the isolation of another. In my own experience, I spent years usually being on the receiving end of it.
Studies and theories suggest that women are taught from childhood to be treat other girls as their competition. When little girls play together, they are told that they have to share everything equally, to be nice to everyone and basically equalize the dynamics of their group. This mentality is carried into adulthood, usually subconsciously. When women see another woman, who seemingly has it all – often playing into an existing insecurity they are already carrying about their own sense of worth – it is almost a natural reaction to want to bring her back to an even playing field and that can often mean tactics like isolation, public humiliation and even sabotage. Add the filtered aspect of social media into the mix and suddenly women are left feeling more inadequate than ever, perpetuating this awful cycle of separateness.
My upbringing somewhat contradicts the theory of little girls being taught to equalize and compete. I was the first-born grandchild into my maternal side of the family and was raised by 5 aunts and my grandmother, in addition to my mum. I was always around a dynamic that didn’t foster competition and you earned what you sowed. My very female dominate family was not traditional in any sense of the word and the girls were rewarded by their effort, intelligence and kindness, no-one was acknowledged or rewarded by their good looks, their weight or what they could afford. It was all about merit and competing with yourself to be better, no-one else.
When the inevitable happened and all my cousins came along, most being female, being the eldest meant that I was often held more accountable from a young age to positively influence and lead. I’m not going to pretend I always did a good job, but I realise now that much of my early life lessons instilled values in me that I never understood for a long time.
I learned a lot entering the work-force at sixteen. I got a part time job at Subway and naturally there was a lot of other teenagers around my age working there. We were all there to do the same job, but the boys were favored over the girls. The boys were always given management roles before girls hired either at the same time if not before and were expected to do a lot less work, like the dishes and floor mopping. I had never, ever been privy to a situation where the boys got preferential treatment or were given advancement over a girls and so this festered an undertone of resentment amongst the girls working there.
I didn’t really know what it was at the start, but a “clique” of the girls started to form and whenever I was on a shift with them, I would be deliberately excluded from their conversations and I started to get paranoid they were talking about me. Their comments were often passive aggressive, saying things like “Oh, so you’re going to eat bread… you know how many calories in that?” Then give me a once over, as if to insinuate I was already disgusting to look at. It didn’t help my confidence that the owners had never gotten around to getting me shirt that fit and I ended up in a men’s XL that came almost to my knees and I had to wear a dorky hat, while everyone else got a visor.
But the comments often had nothing to do with my work ethic and everything to do with my appearance. When a male co-worker was on shift with one of the cliques and myself, I’d again be excluded by the female, who would work tirelessly to keep the males attention on her and be happy to snigger comments about me every now and then, just in ear shot, but with no way I could interject to defend myself. It was an awful environment, as I had always just tried to be myself and had no real understanding of why the girls would do this to me, as I’d always been so nice to them.
And then I realized that I had started to prefer to work with the boys, who’d drudged up so much resentment for their preferential treatment. Even if they didn’t really talk to me, I never felt like they were talking about me and their banter was usually neutral with no passive under-tones. And so that was my first experience with how poor leadership – favoring the males – lead to the girls competing with each other and sucking up to the boys who were given that position. Looking at it I can see how it was a vicious cycle that had been created.
You see women are unfairly leveraged. If a woman is assertive in an authority role, she is often looked at less favorably than a male in the same role. She is expected to soften her approach for fear of alienating other women, but if a man is direct, then that is accepted. If a woman in the work place feels that another woman is climbing the ladder ahead of her, it can often be viewed as creating unequal footing, favoritism or that the woman is not a team player. The fact is that in the workplace, women are still very unequally represented in higher ranking positions and that because of this disproportion, women see these roles as harder to get and therefore their own gender is working against them.
Having the mindset of hard work results in reward, I was very self-motivated in every job I took. I thrived on inhouse KPI’s and budget challenges. Every place I worked, if a challenge was presented, I would always come out on top. Unfortunately, when I went into beauty therapy and working in clinics and salons, the environment was usually all female and I never lasted long. In one particular salon I worked, the owner liked to offer an incentives to whoever could complete a certain outcome by the end of the month. I took them as my own personal mission, which pushed me to work harder, not for the reward, but for the satisfaction of knowing I could do it. Some of the other girls didn’t appreciate the praise that was heaped upon me by management and I started to get used to feeling that the sudden silence when I entered the staff room. There was one girl in particular that would not speak to me at all when we worked together and would deliberately leave extra work at the end of the day for me to do. I had no idea why she was so mean to me all the time, until one day she actually approached me with her explanation.
She said “You know I hated you the minute you were hired. Not because you weren’t a nice person or anything, it was just that you were so confident and the managers favored you, because you were always making them more money.” My reaction must have been present on my face because she continued. “I was jealous of you. I thought you were deliberately trying to make me look bad all the time, so I tried to find ways to make you look bad to them.” I appreciated that she had actually sucked it up and explained her behavior to me. And I think she really nailed the crux of the issue as being I came in with a tremendous work ethic and drive and that threatened her status quo. It meant that my efficiency highlighted her laziness or short-comings and instead of using that to inspire her to work harder, it manifested in exemplifying her insecurity around keeping her job and how much effort she was willing to give to her position. If she noticed, then the managers did too.
As previously mentioned, when a woman steps into a leadership role, the expectations of how she handles that position is tempered somewhat by her ability to relate to other women. Having had mainly female managers through-out my working history, I have seen the good, the bad and the downright ugly. The best knew how to be inclusive and understanding, but unfortunately, I had to endure a lot of the bad. I was screamed at in front of other staff, forced to work grueling fourteen-hour days with no extra pay, sexually harassed and made to feel like I did the wrong thing, bullied and intimated and made to work outside my scope of practice. I do, however, believe that it helped shape me into the kind of leader I would become.
On a personal level, I can honestly say I always struggled with solid female friendships my whole life. I could never understand why girls needed to back-stab or belittle each other. During my teenage years, I always felt ok with just being myself. Like, I knew who I was and what I was doing, which I now realise is not common. While other girls were delicately sitting in the corner at parties or swaying to some crap R’N’B song that was popular, I was blasting “Am I ever gonna see your face again” and shouting the “F” bomb in response. And for all my authenticity, by year twelve, I had one proper female friend. I withdrew a lot too, because I just felt like I never fit in with the ideal, pretend female friendships. I’d overhear girls gossiping about their supposed besties to other girls and someone had had a falling out with someone else. It all seemed so damn tedious and unnecessary to me.
During my twenties, I never had the same circle of female friends for more than a year at a time. More often than not, I attracted people who wanted something from me. Usually on some energetic level, they were feeling poorly about themselves or I was just a sucker for trying to be kind to those in pain. Many of them disappeared once they started feeling better about themselves and I blamed myself, thinking there was something wrong with me.
Why did women not like me?
It all changed when I decided to finally take the leap into running my own company, I knew from the minute I put myself in the leader’s chair, I would be different. I had to be different. And organically, strong, smart and beautiful women started to join the community I had set out to create. Initially, I worked hard on creating an inner circle, which I loving called the “wolfpack” and developed a close-knit group of boss-babes, who never disparaged one another, but instead built their friendships on mutual respect. And the concept just started growing from there.
Having a strong friendship with women who are leaders in their own careers and lives has shown me that women do have the ability to support each other without judgment and that by encouraging and celebrating their successes doesn’t diminish your own.
The community that I envisioned, is now my reality. These women come from all walks of life, from prison officers, to school teachers to stay at home mums and because of their desire to find a place that will accept them for who they truly are, that is what they all have in common and means that competing with each other is a moot point. They are all there because they are different but need to feel like they can be their authentic, imperfect, silly self. And that’s exactly how I felt all those years.
For a long time, I dumbed myself down, so people would not feel threatened by my intelligence. I would waste hours deliberating over whether an outfit was too sexy, as I didn’t want any of my male friends’ girlfriends or wives to feel jealous or threatened by me. And most of that had nothing to do with me! It was how other women felt about themselves. If I had just felt more confident to go into a situation being myself, I am sure I would have won them over. I truly believe that if a woman is willing to just thrown it out there that they aren’t perfect, it won’t matter how many attributes she has that seems threatening. Because at the end of the day, the girl who seemingly has it all may be struggling with the exact same thing you are.
As women, we need to realise that when we work together, everybody wins.