Sunday, January 30, 2005

A "Girl Power" Outage

Over the past week I have been forced to realize, as much as it pains me to admit it, that the worst enemies of women are often other women. I have been in the presence of a high-ranking female who has internalized and now embodies the outdated notion that there is room for only one Alpha Female in an organization or social setting. Needless to say, I had a miserable week.

It is truly exhausting to be in the presence of someone who is so threatened by the presence of another female who perhaps reminds her of herself when she was my age. At every turn I was doubted, questioned, harangued, and all-around disrespected, but in "that way" that every single woman who reads this will know what I'm talking about; it is "that way" that the men in the room do not pick up on, but that every single other female recognizes for what it is: pettiness.

I spent a good deal of time trying to understand her. Maybe she thinks, "I suffered professionally; so can she"? Maybe she got no support from her male bosses or clients back in the day and had to scratch for every bit of respect she got. Who knows? All I know is that she was intent on giving me no respect at all. Although it just irritated me on a personal level, it was incredibly distressing on a socio-political level because women, ideally, are not supposed to wage this kind of internecine warfare on each other.

It is difficult because men who disrespect you can be called out with great alacrity and purpose; women who disrespect you cannot because they have more devious methods than calling you "sweetheart" and talking about p*rn in front of you. This particular woman's method is to have insane expectations, and to hang on to them even when they border on the irrational. On the one hand, it certainly makes me think she is not stable. On the other, maybe that is her way of always getting to be superior to others. If no other woman can ever meet her standards professionally, then no other woman can ever be better than her or deserving of her advice and counsel.

I wonder if it is not generational. The best female boss I ever had was in her 60's back in the early 1990's. There is no doubt that she came up through the ranks when there were precious few women in power. Her reaction to me? Incredibly supportive; challenging in all the right ways. She gave me a project, told me the background, and said, "I have no doubt you will do a fantastic job. Update me twice a week and call on me any time if you have any questions at all." Done. She gave me the faith in myself that I was not yet sure I possessed. She talked to me about What Not To Say, how to know if you're being lied to, ad infinitum. She, by her age, had to have fought the fight for women's access to executive positions. Her response to having waged that fight was to fling wide the doors so that other young female upstarts like me could also have their shot at the boardroom.

This particular woman is in her 40's, so she still had to struggle but in a far more competitive environment simply because there were more women vying for those top spots. She obviously made it to the top, but rather than paying forward her success, she secretly resents those of us who may not have had to scratch our way to the top like she feels she did. Only, the truth is that the scratching is still very much a part of women's professional reality. I KNOW I was paid less than less qualified men at my last job. I KNOW that being a young woman means having to be twice as smart and a bit more serious-looking and -sounding than the average young man, because the subconscious urge among clients is to discount what a young female says no matter how qualified she may be on paper. I KNOW that women are judged on ridiculous metrics like looks, attire and femininity in situations where men are not similarly judged. The difference between my experience and Insane Expectations Lady's? The people trying to hold me back are not piggish men; they are insecure women.

If nothing else came of my Week From Hell, it is this: I resolve to be secure enough in my own skills to not require the denigration of another's. I resolve to be secure enough in my own skills to believe--and put into practice--the concept that there IS room enough for every smart and talented woman out there. I further resolve to prove how smart and talented *I* am by hiring and mentoring them for my own company.

Truly smart, talented women know that the only way to real success is to surround themselves with other smart, talented women.


Anonymous said...

This needs to be turned into a book. Women undercutting and resenting other women is epidemic in my industry too. Is it just me, or do shows like The Bachelor feed that competitiveness? On some level, we are all being set up to see every other woman as a potential competitor, so the first one to land the bachelor, get the Trump job, outwit/outlast the others feels like she is the winner. Except that what did she win? She won the chance to look like either a b**ch or a ho on national television.

Anonymous said...

It would make a good book... How far back does it start? Does it begin with girls in junior high competing to be on the cheerleading squad, or does it start later, in college, or work? Fascinating. The good news is that there are plenty of women like us who were lucky enough to have the 60-something women mentor us early in our professional lives. We know now how it can and should be done!