Why women don’t support each other and how you can support the amazing women in your life
So, I had what I thought was a great idea for a blog post. For Mother’s Day, I was going to write about my relationship with my mom. How it started, how it has shifted over the years, how it is now. I was going to weave in elements that I believe are common in many mother-daughter relationships. I was going to be open and vulnerable about my own loving yet complicated relationship with my mother. I was going to share my excitement and fears about being a mother to my young daughter. I even had what I thought was a clever title: “Mother-Daughter Relationship Status: It’s Complicated”.
And then I tried to write it and got stuck. A few times.
I spoke to my mom about it, and told her that I would only do it with her permission and approval. I would get her input and not just make it one sided. I spoke to other women about their relationships with their mothers and daughters. I repeatedly heard statements like “daughters are harder”, “females are so mean to each other”, and “girls are so much more emotional”.
Taking a closer look at how women support and view each other
Quickly, I realized that this isn’t a post about mothers and daughters. It’s a post about women supporting women and the complicated relationships we have with each other. The dichotomy of unconditional love/support AND competition/tearing each other down that often comes with female relationships.
I reluctantly call myself a feminist, because there are so many varying understandings of what it means. Simply put, I believe in striving for equal rights and opportunities of all people. For me, feminism goes beyond sex/gender and is more about humanity. I would be kidding myself though if I tried to suggest that I always live within this value, and I will start by critiquing my own view of women. And guess what? It starts with my mother.
My mother is a character. With a loud cackle that echoes through stores and a warm genuine smile that could soften even the biggest curmudgeon's resolve, she's got a presence that is undeniable. She claims to me that as a child she was "deathly shy", but I suspect most people would find it hard to believe that this woman who engages in small talk with everyone she encounters was ever a shrinking violet.
My father has almost the opposite presence-- reserved, stern and outwardly intimidating despite only being 5'8". (He’s the curmudgeon I refer to in the previous paragraph, who gets clearly softened by my mother). In both physicality and personality, I seem to be a pretty even split of the two. Growing up, I had a great admiration for my dad. He is smart, confident, and has a subtle charm about him. Whenever anyone would tell me I reminded them of my dad, I would beam.
I didn’t have the same reaction when people would compare me to my mom, despite seeing her many strengths. I was very forgiving of my dad for his flaws (often to the point that it was hard for me to see them). I gave (and still give) my mom very little space for her shortcomings before criticizing her. And this didn’t stop at my mom. It goes for friends, colleagues, and even strangers. I hold women to a higher standard. I don’t think I’m alone on this.
Are women really supporting women?
I have always had close female friends, and yet for much of my life would say “I get along better with men than women” or “there’s only certain types of women I get along with”. I remember watching a “reality” dating show with my husband, where many women were vying for the affection of the same man. We both watched in disbelief as how this scenario seemed to bring out the worst in many women. I shook my head at the ridiculous antics, and my husband said “they’re your gender”, to which I responded, “I’m not even sure they’re the same species.”
I frequently hear the refrain in my therapy office of women who don’t like other women, who have had horrific experiences of being emotional tormented by female bullies or “mean girls” and saying that they can’t trust women. When I point out (what I think is the obvious) that I am a woman, they present to me the reasons I’m different, the qualities that they see in me that cause me to be the exception rather than the rule in terms of “womanhood”. Such as, “You don’t seem judgmental like most women.” Or “I don’t think you’re going to be catty or manipulative”.
Are other women the competition? How we socialized to have different expectations of men and women
Women are not socialized to be supportive of each other, at least not in a consistent way. This seems to start from conception. When I was pregnant (both times), my husband and I opted to not find out the sex of our babies. What was fascinating to me is how many other people wanted to guess what we were having based on what seemed to me to be rather arbitrary factors.
I started to pay attention to the so-called “old wives’ tales” and noticed what to me was a disturbing trend. It appears that most of the indications that you were having a girl were negative and a boy were positive. The list of common tells for carrying a girl includes: excessive morning sickness, more prominent mood swings, carrying more weight in the middle, oily skin, weaker hair and nails, etc.
The one most shocking to me came when many years ago my former (inappropriate) boss said to a pregnant co-worker, “You must be having a boy, because you look great—positively glowing. If it were a girl, she’d be stealing your beauty”. For real? This opportunistic female fetus is already your competition?
For what it’s worth, I had both a boy and a girl, and carried them similarly, and the pregnancies and labor were not notably different. If my “beauty was stolen” in my second pregnancy (my daughter) at least people were far more tactful than my previous boss and didn’t say anything. My anecdotal evidence is not worth more than anyone else’s, and while I haven’t done extensive research, there appears to be little to no scientific evidence backing up the “old wives’ tales” listed above.
Where women fall short in supporting other women, especially working mothers
And it’s not just the negativity toward females that is problematic, there are also unspoken barriers to being positive and supportive with each other. For example, my Balancing Bravely partner Julia and I have gotten in the habit this past year of sending rambling, honest, incredibly vulnerable emails to each other. It’s like having a compassionate rational person at the other end of a journal entry. No, it’s not like that - it is that.
If you have read some of our other posts you might have gathered that we both have had transformative years with many ups and downs – I was overcoming burnout and Julia was grappling with being underpaid and then starting her own company. And through this, our friendship has shifted from a “hey, we both have kids the same age and enjoy each other’s company” to a deep bond. We have laughed about the fact that we are in each other’s heads and consistently encourage each other to be better.
And still, as honest as I feel like I can be with Julia, and as much as I trust and appreciate her, I sometimes have a hesitation when letting her know how much she means to me. When she sent me an email earlier this week that was so raw and candid about feeling like an imposter, I just wanted to respond and tell her I love her.
But I didn’t.
It’s hard to pinpoint the source of my reluctance. I can’t help but think that there is an underlying fear that if I become too vulnerable or too praise-heavy, that I will somehow push her away. So, of course the obvious solution to announce it on the Internet. Love ya, Julia!
It brings to mind a conversation I had with my friend Anne many years ago. We were in the back seat of a car heading out for the evening with a couple other friends. At this point we had been roommates for two years, and had a very comfortable, easy friendship. I don’t recall how it came up but I said to her, “I’m so glad you’re my best friend”, and then internally freaked out that maybe she didn’t view our friendship the same way. She said, almost in tears, “You think of me as your best friend? You’re my best friend too”. (I feel it is important to note that there was no alcohol consumption prior to this conversation, despite the “I love you, man” vibe of it). The other two people in the car with us (who happened to be men) laughed and started to tease us. “Did you guys just figure that out?”
I don’t think we just figured it out, but it was the first time we verbalized it. It’s been 15 years since that conversation and Anne is still my best friend and a vital part of my life. I suspect in 15 years Julia will be too. And yet even with Anne, I hesitate to be vulnerable, and struggle to reach out when I’m not at my best.
How can you empower the amazing women in your life?
So, let me try to reign this in a bit. Let’s consider what we can do to break this pattern of viewing each other of enemies rather than allies as well as dropping the walls with the allies we have.
Ways to show your support for women:
1. Let the important women in your life know they’re important to you.
This includes genuinely complimenting them, listening without being quick to problem solve or criticize (unless they ask for it). Tell them you appreciate them and why. This goes both ways, when someone offers you a compliment accept it graciously. Show appreciation for when you notice that someone is listening to you with empathy.
2. Bond with women over positives rather than shared enemies.
I’m not going to lie. I like gossip. Not in a way to be hurtful or petty, but because I think humans are fascinating. I have several people in my life that I have become closer to because we had a mutual dislike for someone else (a boss, an annoying classmate, etc). However, it’s pretty shallow, and on its’ own not enough to sustain a real friendship, especially if it leads to bullying or exclusionary behavior.
I’m going to avoid getting too political here if possible, but I do want to point out some recent social trends that border on political statements. The #metoo campaign brought to light many elements of sexual harassment and sexual assault and gave many women a voice and sense of solidarity. And as sometimes goes in such situations, the bonding occurs over a common enemy. The downside to that is that it often becomes over-simplified to “women are victims” or “men are pigs”. For every woman that commends another for their courage in speaking out, there seems to be a woman disbelieving or blaming them for what happened. Let’s focus on the courage, and take away the blame. Let’s consider that not all men are bad, and that many men have also been on the receiving end of sexual assault.
3. Look out for unconscious bias. Pay attention to your words especially in regards to gender.
In her TedX talk, “Are you biased? I am” Kristen Pressner (a highly successful female business leader) calls out her own unconscious bias of female leaders and explores how unconscious bias impacts all of us. She encourages the audience to “flip it to test it” regarding language. So, if something doesn’t feel right when you “flip it” to the other gender, then is it a term you should be using? The one that comes to mind that has nothing to do with gender is when people say they’re going to a “gay wedding” instead of just a wedding. Would you say “straight wedding”? Probably not, so why not just say wedding?
4. Be kind to one another
OK, I stole this one from Ellen DeGeneres, but given that she exemplifies the point I’m trying to make, I don’t think she’d mind. Yes, humans are critical beings, and that has a place and purpose, but we don’t need to be mean. What if we showed greater compassion and less annoyance for strangers? For example, imagine you are in line at the grocery store and the person in front of you is counting out their exact change, which is causing you to feel impatient. Instead of rolling your eyes and tapping your foot, what if you found the humanity in the interaction and focused the commonalities you might have with this individual instead of differences.
5. Be kind to yourself
Let’s face it, the discrimination toward women doesn’t end when we get to ourselves. In fact, most of us are far harder on ourselves than the other people (even women!) in our lives. So, start by talking to yourself a bit nicer and see where that leads you.
Female relationships can be complicated, but if we can take a little time and reflection to consider how we could be making small changes in our thoughts, feelings and actions toward ourselves and other women, it could go a long way!