Remember how Leslie Knope took her protégé April Ludgate in Parks and Recreation on a garbage truck to teach her about feminism? That's ladies helping each other.
At a recent casual drinking session with a friend I was a little shocked when she mentioned that she was having a hard time at work, but that she considered it to be expected since her workplace was mainly women and so, of course, the atmosphere was “bitchy”. Firstly, I already have major issues with the word “bitch” and its permutations since it usually applies to behaviour that would be called something else if it was a man doing it (similar to the pejorative “nag”, which in most cases should be simply replaced with “remind”).
I was also surprised by her sentiments as I’m somewhat of an expert in working with women, since making the choice to work in publishing often means making the choice to surround one’s self with ladies as far as the eye can see. In most of the offices I’ve worked in it’s been 95 per cent women with one token guy on the team looking on in awe (that glazed over look that appeared when we discussed Ryan Gosling versus Joseph Gordon Levitt was awe, right?). The phrase “Where did you get that?” is one I’ve heard loudly and often.
I’ve really enjoyed working in oestrogen-heavy environments. Perhaps it’s because I went to an all-girls school and found it positive. (If you are continually told that you’re a “strong, independently minded young woman”, no matter how much you mocked it as a teenager eventually it’s ingrained in your psyche as indisputable fact by adulthood.) This is also borne out by research that shows girls in single sex schools do better academically and have increased confidence in study areas that are traditionally considered “masculine”. From my experience, a girls-only school teaches you down to your bones that women can do anything, because at our school we were doing everything. It’s one thing to be encouraged by teachers saying “Maths isn’t just for boys” but another to see them have to add another advanced maths class in your grade because of demand. And similarly at work I find it inspiring to see other women getting book deals, editing magazines and websites to a shiny gleam, and writing the sort of wonderful prose that can change how you see the world.
Now I know my friend isn’t alone in her assessment that female-dominated workplaces are a cesspit of nasty gossiping hidden beneath a seemingly friendly facade. Amazon is awash with books to combat this problem with disheartening (and extremely long) names like Working with Mean Girls: Identifying and Protecting Yourself From Workplace Nastiness, I Can't Believe She Did That!: Why Women Betray Other Women at Work and Mean Girls, Meaner Women: Understanding Why Women Backstab, Betray, and Trash-Talk Each Other and How to Heal. So I don’t want to discount her experience as not real, but at the same time it seems that is already the dominant narrative of what supposedly happens when women work together (the female competitiveness and bitchiness on display in the alleged roman à clef The Devil Wears Prada springs to mind as an obvious example in popular culture).
And yet that’s so rarely been what I’ve found. Many of the women I’ve worked with have been supportive of my work, helped me find further vocational opportunities and made coming in to work fun. I’ve come away with friendships that have continued long after I moved on to another role. This myth that women all view one another as competitors to money, men and promotions needs to die a swift, painful death. And those of us who have had positive experiences in all-female environments need to speak out to help combat this tired old stereotype that most women deep down hate other women and are deviously plotting for any opportunity to cut them down.
Now, that’s not to paint working with all women as some sort of glorious girltopia. Of course I’ve had to deal with difficult personalities but I certainly don’t think it was my XX chromosomes or their XX chromosomes causing the friction. This idea that you put a bunch of women together, sprinkle some water and ta-da – instant catfight! – is ridiculous and harmful, because it just makes it harder for women at work to be upfront or assertive without being tagged with the “bitch” banner. If someone who is consistently mean to you at work happens to be female she’s probably not a “bitch”. She’s simply an office bully or a garden variety jerkhole – and those come in both genders.