<i>Mad Men's</i> Joan and Peggy take a moment to bond in the office in season 4.

Mad Men's Joan and Peggy take a moment to bond in the office in season 4.

In the endless push back against feminism, the status quo has one reliable (and resilient) tool it trots out again and again to deflect legitimate attempts to address gender inequality. It's offered in artificially sage tones, with carefully furrowed brows and helpless shrugs. Newspapers blare it in bold headlines, or place it high up on their websites as clickbait to lure both those who need little to no excuse to furiously agree that feminism has gone too far, and those for whom the stupidity of the question itself incites outrage.

Could all this oppression we keep hearing about actually come from women themselves?

Last week, an article appeared in The Age posing just such a quandary. Written by James Adonis, ‘one of Australia’s best-known people-management thinkers’, it considered the thorny issue of why women still find it difficult to break through the glass ceiling. Colour me crazy, but I always thought this could be attributed to deeply entrenched patriarchal structures which prioritise male leadership over women’s, punish those women who take time out to have a baby and support of a system that considers female graduates less financially valuable than their male counterparts. I guess I had it wrong, because, according to Adonis "It’s often said that if the gender imbalance were reversed so that women rather than men held a majority of leadership roles, that workplaces would be different. They’d be kinder, gentler, more empathetic. There’d be a greater focus on relationships, connections, teamwork, and support. So what’s stopping women from getting ahead? In many cases, other women." 

<i>Mad Men's</i> Megan, before she became Don's secretary, then wife, then quit.

Mad Men's Megan, before she became Don's secretary, then wife, then quit.

It's not the first time such dog whistling has appeared in an article addressing women's position in the workforce. Regardless of how it's phrased ("Are women their own worst enemies?", "Do women have themselves to blame?", "Why are women so petty and stupid?"), the question always manages to neatly sidestep any acknowledgement of patriarchy while conveniently perpetuating it. By posing it, those who most benefit from these one sided structures not only abrogate all responsibility for helping to dismantle them, they also succeed in subjecting those most affected by it to a system of social gaslighting - executing a wider dialogue that puts all the blame at the feet of the marginalised by subtly suggesting that their difficulties are either made up or their own fault.

In some cases, such suggestions aren’t even subtle with business leaders outright blaming women for failing to ask for promotions and raises. This comes despite the fact women are also criticised for ‘acting like men’ when it comes to exercising their own ambition and leadership, and entirely ignores the reality that most women will retire having earned approximately $1 million less than their they-just-must-work-harder-and-be-less-bitchy male colleagues. 

But such arguments of self sabotage are supported because they occasionally contain a kernel of truth (although not in the way you might think). In some cases, women have been responsible for isolating and marginalising their female co-workers or subordinates. They’ve assessed their options and incorrectly decided that the best way for them to progress is to play by the rules as they see them set out - to join the boys club. But as Molly Lambert argues in this must-read piece, women have to look out for each other (even when they don’t like each other) because that’s the only way they can fight back against the source of their real oppression. As women, we have to resist “the delusion that you can become an official part of the boys' club if you are its strictest enforcer, its most useful prole. That if you follow the rules exactly you can become the Official Woman. If you refuse other women admission you are denying that other women are talented, which makes you just as bad as any boys' club for thinking there would only be one talented girl at a time.”

Unfortunately, the centuries of marginalisation experienced by women make it a little difficult to shuck off the perception that there are limited places at the top that they’re ‘allowed’ to fill. When you’ve had it demonstrated to you time and time again that the world views women’s participation as peripheral rather than integral, it’s little wonder that a significant proportion of those affected would seek to work with that oppression rather than against it. And because the short term potential for women to succeed in such a codified social system relies upon them being the only non-boy allowed in, they begin to perceive the women around them as being their enemies rather than their allies. Do some women compete with each other in the workplace in order to attain the limited power they perceive to be available to them? Absolutely. Is it their fault? No. 

Hang on, I hear you say. Why do women get off scot-free? Aren’t we supposed to be striving for equality? Why do they get a free pass when it comes to bad behaviour?   

The answer is that they don’t. Women should absolutely be held to account for nefariously stepping over the bodies of their peers in order to get ahead. But the fact that they participate in the wider oppression of women in the workplace doesn’t mean they are responsible for that oppression. And we need to stop asking cynically posed questions as if they are - as if the only thing standing between an oppressed group and real liberation is their own inadequacy. The victims of the gender pay gap are not responsible for women’s decreased earning capacity. The lack of women in positions of upper management is not due to the fact that women aren’t promoting each other into those positions. 

The path to privilege is guarded by those who enjoy it, not by those trying to find their way to it. Women may have internalised the idea that they have to compete against each other as enemies - but that’s merely a symptom of the problem, not the cause.