• Germana Barba

Unsettling: When Women Dislike Women



This week, women and women’s issues will be talked about a lot. A growing number of organizations will put out new reports with ever more depressing data about the insufficient level of rights and opportunities that are available to women and girls worldwide. The pandemic has hit the female half of the world disproportionately. Women account for 70% of workers employed in caregiving jobs that are critical to sustaining the weaker segments of the population. Yet, they are paid less than men, and they often perform these tasks without retribution. We will be reminded that only a small percentage of companies are led by women and that only 10% of all the heads of state and governments worldwide are women. Today, for the umpteenth time, media will write about how far gender parity still is and that at the current pace, we are unlikely to experience it in our lifetime.


The causes of the gender gap are more than clear by now, having to do with gender-related stereotypes and the relative distribution of power and resources among women and men. To anyone that cares about women and their advancements, today is not going to be a good day. We can (and in many cases should) blame the men who do not yet fully believe in us and (more often than we think) do not see the gravity of the issue. But if progress is frustratingly slow, it may be helpful to take a look at ourselves and, for once, try to understand what we are doing wrong. A self-critical look can hardly be harmful (or useless), insofar as if we are serious about women having immense capabilities, intelligence, ideas, and will – and I certainly am – we may well find in ourselves some of the solutions we need.


I want to talk about us women and the way we, at times, see ourselves and other women. I want to share the view that many of our issues could be improved if we truly embraced the notion that, despite all the differences in status and other characteristics, we are a group, and as such we need to stand up for each other. I want to say upfront that, by critically looking at the behavior of us women towards other women, I am consciously running a high risk of falling into the camp I am criticizing, the camp of women criticizing other women. I hope you will trust me when I say that I believe in women so much that I think that we have everything we need to achieve many of the goals we consider not yet attained. But I believe just as equally that one of the reasons why we are not where we should be is that we are still lagging behind on a fundamental piece: the ability to play team and to stand up for each other at all levels.


For starters, while men carry their flags and pursue their interests by helping each other, it is often women who shed doubt over other women’s achievements and merits. Some men simply don’t want us, while some women go as far as to undermine us. Women look at each other in a very competitive manner that aims at uncovering that little thing they can later comment on. Our acute sense of observation would be better used to spot opportunities and identify roadmaps to success instead of being deployed to notice the tiniest detail suggesting that a woman is less perfect than our inner severity tolerates. We rarely forgive each other’s mistakes, as if a woman needs to be some sort of superhuman in order to merit our approval. We look for confidence in leaders, but we feel threatened by the female conjugation of it.


Worldwide, more than 50% of people do not trust women as leaders. That percentage counts far more women than any female stomach should be able to digest. Some men may not be wholeheartedly supportive of women’s success. But once a woman reaches success, even the most refractory men will eventually acknowledge reality. Us women can be even more unsupportive, as we would dig out any reason why that success is not deserved. For a man, the idea that a woman may have landed a big job or a political appointment because she was helped by someone is simply an option because many men would concede that kind of support to a woman if they were in a position to do so. If a woman nurtures that suspicion, she will project contempt and moral judgment.


Very often, smart women think they are demonstrating their smartness by distancing themselves from other women. Why is that?


Perhaps it’s because, from an early age, we’re taught that women gossip and bitch. We’re taught that men, in contrast, are straightforward and confident. Society values men more, we’re told, so we vie for their attention and approval to earn a seat at the table.


Feminism has not necessarily helped. Critical of traditional female models, it has created a fracture between the emancipated and the unemancipated. There are dozens of feminist schools of thought but many of us prefer the comfort of running away from the general label altogether. Reaching equality with men has often meant that, in the eyes of women, men are the models, not other women. A woman that is allowed into the “boys’ club” is a woman that measures herself against men but compete with other women for that space.


And yes, women are everything but a homogeneous universe. Women leaders preaching there should be more women leaders are (legitimately, to an extent) criticized by women defending disadvantaged women, who in turn are blamed for underestimating the role of female leadership in improving the life of all women. And so on.


But it does not have to be this way.


First of all, there is education. Vivienne Parry, a British science journalist and broadcaster, describes her mother as a misogynist. When Parry told her mother that she wanted to study science at the university, her mother responded: “Whatever for?” It made Parry wonder: “Why was my mother so against helping anyone of her own gender climb to the same heights as she did? Why was she so loath to laud female achievement—even when the female forging ahead was her own daughter?” I think we can all agree that life presents many hurdles for anyone to pursue their ambitions, but that being a girl can no longer reasonably be seen as one such hurdle. Whether we are parents, educators, or mentors to young girls, we can transmit the basic principle that they are entitled to pursue their dreams.


Secondly, there is the politics (with a small ‘p’). If we are reluctant to form alliances with other women and help each other, let’s not be surprised by our lack of effectiveness. Division is a recipe for failure. In today’s scattered world, relationships are an ever-precious driver of opportunities. I am not just talking about jobs and careers. I am also talking about when one in three women are victim of violence, women’s networks and support groups are lifesavers. But even thinking of ‘normal’ situations, if we don’t stick together we are bound to lose.


Thirdly, competition amongst ourselves, whether it occurs in the workplace or in social circles, is a huge source of stress. Instead, caring of other female human beings and being the recipient of that benevolence can be a wellspring of strength and confidence.


Today on International Women’s Day, we will be reminded how much work needs to be done in order for women to enjoy a fair share of dignity. I would like to propose today to be also about us women changing the way we look at and feel about other women. I’d like for us to focus on the real goal, which is to be able to bring a different way of thinking, working, deciding, behaving, organizing, in all sectors and at all levels of our societies, and to be engaged in creating realities that are more human, more compassionate, and more inclusive.


It is a massive undertaking that we can achieve only if we move in unity. I know many women who already feel this way, and I hope that many more will join.

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