How women can deal with prejudice from other women at work (yes, it happens)
Ladies, have you received some uncalled for comments at the workplace? Or – gasp – accidentally let one slip before? Time to lean in and end this misogynistic culture for good.
Women’s empowerment and sisterhood are some of the hottest catchphrases in the equality movement in recent years. But while many have enthusiastically risen to the challenge to champion each other at the workplace, there are still “Queen Bees” or bullies around who – consciously or otherwise – stand in the way of their peers.
In fact, most women have probably experienced some form of female discrimination before. For instance, some people may make snide remarks about their female bosses or are mean and uncooperative to other women in the workplace.
“I have seen one instance where a woman called another female leader ‘incompetent and bad at her job’ for no clear reason and told her team not to follow her instructions,” said Yolanda Lee, founder and CEO of Uncommon, a private network that connects and supports women in leadership positions.
At times, it can show up as a double standard. For example, a male boss who gives feedback might be perceived as being proactive while a female might be regarded as mean and unpleasant.
Or, female misogyny can sometimes manifest in the form of unwarranted personal comments. “One of my friends told me how her female manager commented on her weight and asked if she was pregnant – to get her to clarify that she wasn’t pregnant,” said Saara Sihvonen, a coach and Positive Psychology Practitioner (CAPP).
Sihvonen, a former fashion model, has personally experienced such comments, too. “I’ve been told, ‘You’re so skinny, do you even eat anything,’ both within and outside the work environment. I’ve pretty much never heard these comments from men,” she said.
Such catty remarks can be due to feelings of inadequacy compared to other women. “When one feels insecure, the protective mode to feel better about oneself and to boost one’s confidence can be to judge other females ‘who have it better’. For some women this judgement might be expressed through gossip or talking behind one’s back,” said Sihvonen.
Some of this unconscious bias that women demonstrate against other women also have deep roots in the internalised norms of behaviour in a patriarchal society. “Women, like men, are not immune to the biases and messaging that we all receive from such a young age. Misogyny has such deep roots across all societies and permeates a range of religions, philosophies and popular culture,” observed Lee.
“Even the most supportive woman can unconsciously act in ways that undermine other women. Internalised misogyny can show up as a sense of scarcity for ‘seats at the table’ for successful women in the workplace resulting in competitiveness, excessive criticism and personal attacks.”
Sabrina Ho, founder and CEO of Half The Sky, a career and headhunting platform connecting female professionals with equal opportunity employers, recalled a conversation about the gender pay gap.
“I was talking about how organisations can tackle this pervasive issue when the only female executive on this panel stated the gender pay gap doesn’t exist as she was paid very well and the issue was of the failure of women as they may not want to work hard enough or may not be capable enough to cut it,” she said.
“I thought to myself, ‘Talk about throwing all women under the bus’. For me personally, the most challenging aspect of female misogyny when female leaders perpetuate a system that only accommodates one woman to have a seat at the top table.”
To change this person’s unfounded bias, Ho took the time to explain politely that the evidence of the gender pay gap extended beyond her and the statistics compiled by governments and institutions clearly show it exists.
In time, hopefully actions like Ho’s will help to change the culture of women “sabotaging” each other as we climb the corporate ladder.
And to add to this snowball effect, here are five ways you can help to tear down these entrenched walls so that you too can truly empower the women around you.
1. BE AWARE OF YOUR OWN BIAS
Ask yourself if you personally hold certain preconceived notions so that you can play your part in breaking this cycle. Make it a point to not gossip or perpetuate this tendency within the workplace.
Avoid “labelling” people such as “career woman”, “housewife” or “wife” as a shortcut to getting to know them as this can perpetuate preconceived notions you might have of a certain person. Instead, make the effort to get to know each individual for herself.
Sihvonen said: “Taking time to get to know each other is quite essential and usually the best pathway to creating more connection to each other and connection helps kill these stereotypes, labels and prejudice – and I guess the cattiness too!”
2. SURROUND YOURSELF WITH THE RIGHT PEOPLE
As they say, like attracts like, so surround yourself with like-minded allies who can encourage you, celebrate your wins and help you bounce back from your losses – and do the same for them in return.
“I believe that seeking to lift each other up is the only way to change the cycle. You can always tell who the strong women are. They are the ones you see building each other up instead of tearing each other down,” said Ho.
If you are unfortunately in a hostile work environment, look beyond your work desk and even the country you live in, she urged. For instance Ho’s platform Half The Sky offers courses and soon, mentorships to support professional women. Lee’s organisation Uncommon is another option that offers coaching, programming and get-togethers so like-minded women can draw inspiration from each other.
3. CHANGE YOUR REACTION TO A SLIGHT
Admittedly, this can be hard to put into practise but remember this, the one thing that is well within your control is how you react to things that happen to you. “Remember, this is a reflection of the other person and not you – in most cases I don’t think women even recognise their own misogyny,” said Ho.
So, be proactive in helping yourself cope with the situation by finding a way to view the situation through a different lens. For example, you might want to tell yourself that the other person is having a bad day and taking out her frustrations on you, suggested Sihvonen.
She added: “It is important to note that changing your response is not an act of ignoring the problem. It’s a way for you to help yourself out when someone is behaving in a rude way. Changing your mental response is a gift to yourself because it will help you cope with such events much better in the future.”
4. DON’T BE AFRAID TO SPEAK UP
What you can do to alleviate this issue is to gently and politely alert the other person to the impact of her actions. “Letting someone know how their actions made you feel can help them to build a basic level of awareness,” said Lee. “I recommend doing this privately versus in a public setting where they will be more likely to respond defensively.”
Lee suggests that it is best to use specific examples to illustrate your points, instead of blanket statements like “you always” or “you never” which are more likely to be perceived as an attack.
5. FIND THE OPPORTUNITY EVEN IN AN UNPLEASANT SITUATION
Focus on finding the silver lining instead. So, when you engage this person, tell her you are committed to succeeding together and work to create win-win outcomes together, said Lee. “Model the behaviour you want to see in the other person – give them credit where it is due or interject when someone interrupts them in a meeting,” she suggested.
This action can also positively impact your own mental wellbeing. “Even in the toughest times when we help ourselves to focus our attention to see the silver-lining, we help ourselves become more resilient,” said Sihvonen.