While at university a couple of years ago, I registered for a class called Gender & Development, the few men who walked in, heads bowed down did not understand why it was compulsory for their degree programme to attend this class. To them this class would be about women and they would never get a word in sideways- and to be honest they were not entirely wrong. I hoped at the beginning of the semester that I would leave at the end of it, a transformed woman with more fuel to oil my feminism engine, so to speak. I was ready to learn theories that would help me fight these men who were sucking the energy out of me and my fellow women.
But after we had exhausted our voices arguing about how men could treat us better, how we could raise our sons and daughters differently, how society could cater for our needs more and all the other ‘perfect’ solutions. When we had pondered gravely on some of the situations that had happened to us – in the workplace, in school and even on our way to the shop to pick up a loaf of bread – we came back to this very question.
Why are women not supportive of other women? Because they are jealous. Green-eyed monsters!
A year before that, I was unfortunate enough to be called into a manager’s office (a woman) to be told that the dress I was wearing that day was too sensual, and that some members of staff had complained that customers were not concentrating. This is the honest truth – hand on heart. Now let me describe this particular outfit. It was a dress which I had worn with a shirt, it was not tight at all, I had purposefully bought it a size too big, it was on the knee and due to the warm weather that day I had decided to forego the hose/tights. So fast-forward the end of the conversation, and this woman is sat down across me looking at me sheepishly for bringing up the topic, or in her own words, ‘honestly Angélique you always look lovely but …’ and so I picked up my things from my desk and caught the bus to the nearest Marks & Spencer to buy a pair of tights, to cool down my obviously steaming outfit. I was tempted to ask her to point me in the direction of the customer whose breath had been cut short due to the strip club-worthy choix du jour, but I thought better of it.
I don’t want to debate on whether she was right or whether she had the right, all I know is that this was the day I made the decision that in this fight for gender equality, in this fight for emancipation; women have become their own worst enemy.
It was hard for me to figure out how to respond to this situation, my first reaction was that this woman was a hater, she is jealous that I look better than her. It helped thinking this way given my former manager’s slightly larger than average size. And I had a good old moan to every human that I could find within reasonable distance about it, and to be honest they all sympathised, ‘you are an intelligent girl and you are beautiful – be prepared to meet the haters out there!’ Now that I am wiser, I ask myself whether I did myself any good by reacting the way I did, whether I did humanity any good by formulating this idea in my head that my awesomeness cannot be handled by other women, and then I also ask myself how I would have felt if my manager was a man. How would I have responded to this situation? Most probably would have felt embarrassed, rushed to M&S without a fuss and not have mentioned it to anyone. And later on after thinking about it I would have perhaps allowed the words ‘sexist, sexual harassment and pervert’ to swim carefree in my mind.
Caroline Turner wrote in a Forbes article, ‘so long as women are minorities at the leadership levels of business, they will be subject to the “same paintbrush” effect.’ Which in essence is true, because there are so few of us out there we are unable to have a balanced opinion about how effective we are at people management. No one considers a man jealous of his fellow male colleague as an intrasexual rivalry problem, it’s just the way things are.
I do not deny that open hatred can exist when women have a woman as a boss, it is true they can be jealous and openly try to tarnish her image as a successful and well-respected individual. Some women in positions of leadership can feel high & mighty in their Christian Louboutins and give a hard time to their female subordinates. I can vouch for this, not simply by observation and personal experience but conversations with women everywhere.
I know women, who for some reason expect a woman in a position of leadership to be their rescuer and best friend. We expect these women in positions of leadership to do us favours because they have secured seats on the decision-making table. Why not see their presence up there as a sign that you too, if you work hard enough can secure a place. Why must we think that because she has made it, then there is no space for you as well, and therefore her role must be to cater to your every whim?
Women are apparently wired for close friendships. It is completely normal to see a bunch of women huddled up by the water dispenser gossiping about the new guy in IT, but when an alpha woman joins the team the game changes. And even more so when she is adamant on keeping a professional distance; ‘who does she think she is?’ Do these words sound familiar? She does not sympathise with your requests to go home early because you have period pains, she does not gossip and she spends more time with the male colleagues. She must be a man-eater, she is anti-babies, she will be a spinster for life. Ahhh the stereotypes are endless.
The truth is leadership as we know it, has a lot of qualities that have through generations and generations been associated with men alone, and we thus consider them to be masculine traits (power, authority, responsibility, strength, assertiveness) – in the end, it is easier for a women in leadership to connect with men than it is for her to connect with women. How weird to be among other women at lunch time and prefer to talk about the market than what happened on yesterday’s episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Right? NO!
Us women in positions of leaderships, and us women being led by women need to readjust our minds, and see beyond this wall we have firmly constructed before our eyes. A woman is your ally not your enemy. If you want to be jealous have that constructive jealousy. Be proud of those women who have made it to the top and aspire the same for yourself or for your daughters. Respect yourselves, and each other. This intrasexual rivalry they speak of is a plot to make you lose focus on what you are fighting for. By putting another woman down we are spitting on the efforts that women everywhere have worked hard for, we are proving that we are an incorrigible gender. We want emancipation but we cannot be civil to one another in the simplest of settings. Well no, change must happen.
Before you can lead, learn about leadership – and what is the best way to do that? By being a follower.
So you see, that class on Gender & Development didn’t teach me about how to be a better feminist in the end, it gave me the green light to be comfortable with my womanhood and respect other women.