A few days ago a woman said to me, “women are just born evil”. It stopped me in my tracks. Not because I couldn't believe what I was hearing, but rather because it wasn’t the first time I had heard it, and certainly not the first time I had heard it from another woman. What stopped me was a deep sense of sadness that there are women who say this (openly and proudly) about other women. This got me thinking about why some women find it difficult to genuinely support other women, where it stems from, and why we need reminding to support each other. Why some women need to distinguish themselves from “other women” and classify themselves as “one of the boys”, or getting along better with men.
In all honesty, I can’t say I have always been a blind supporter of women. I didn’t always embrace all women and genuinely mean it. I admit that I did feel that there were a lot of women in the workplace who were out for themselves and who intentionally gave other women a bad name, or held them back. I felt an undertone of competition and lack of trust. I have personally said things like, “I would rather work for a man”.
As I reflected upon my own bias, I realized that I had systemically been taught to believe that women were mean, complicated, gossipy and bitchy. I believed this, and conversely I believed what I had been taught about men: that they were more level-headed, uncomplicated and direct. I was taught, by media and by my environment, that by simply being a woman I was likely to be complicated, play mind games, and plot to hold others back. I was taught to believe that while women could work, we should also be primary caregivers, while the man took on more senior roles. Indeed, I had been taught to be a misogynist. And worse, I was unwittingly advancing these thoughts and stereotypes.
As I began to recognize my bias I came to understand that while there are differences between genders, they are not necessarily in alignment with what I had been taught by society. I knew women were smart, brilliant, complex and capable of whatever they put their minds too, just as men are. I also know we are held to different standards and perhaps this is what perpetuates the perceptions that women hold about other women? These unbalanced standards that drive women to pit themselves against other women and compete in some unspoken contest to be the brightest, most successful, prettiest, best dressed, most well-liked and revered in our workplace.
And so I began to think about how I can personally be part of the change. Despite the feelings I previously had about women, I have always focused on the work, the outcomes and the impact on the people. And so, I chose to lead by example. I am a straight shooter and while I have been held back for being too “direct” or “opinionated” I have held firm to who I am and maintained my own values and integrity. I have challenged feedback that felt gender specific and pushed through the stereotypes when they tried to confine me. I brought my whole self to the corporate world, and I bring it to my clients today.
I can’t say it was easy to make this progression. It was hard for me to trust women fully: to shake the feeling that I was being judged, saying one thing to my face and another behind my back. And when I see women doing this today, my old fears creep back in. But still, I chose to lead by example by supporting other women, speaking up for other women, cheering for other women and sometimes crying with other women. I stand by my tribe, and I know that they stand by me. I will continue to use my voice to speak up and fight for equality and fight stereotypes, I will continue to address my own biases and make sure I am practicing what I preach and walking the talk. I am also going to dig deeper into this topic as I think more about the complexities of why it is so hard to change the underlying tone (admitted to or not). As with any topic like this, the change starts with us.