Are women really their own worst enemies?

<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.

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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.

63 comments

  • The idea that were women predominant the business world would be a utopia is an attractive conclusion to jump to - but there are good reasons why it probably wouldn't be the case. You have to look at the reason the people who are in charge are in charge - they are the best and biggest bastards, the most competitive and cunning. Yes, I do believe women can be those things - but that's precisely why things would probably be very similar as now - just with a different balance amongst the privileged/power elite.
    The basic point being made is perfectly valid though - victims of workplace discrimination should not be blamed for it. (sound suspiciously like another area of life)
    But these issues are predominantly about a middle-class preoccupations of career, wealth accumulation, social prestige etc - its disheartening to see the thrust of Feminism/egalitarianism be monopolised by a group who is already relatively privileged to most women.

    Commenter
    gabe
    Location
    melb
    Date and time
    February 05, 2013, 12:50AM
    • Did the author read the criticisms of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency Graduate Survey she quotes? See below,

      "GCA policy and strategy adviser Bruce Guthrie said the agency had read data from its annual Australian Graduate Survey in a "overly simplistic" way.
      "The researcher in question has missed some vital paragraphs in this fairly short document which would have explained a lot of the stuff we have had to clarify.
      "It does happen. It's happened before, it will happen again with various data sets. People get the wrong handle and think the story is simpler than it actually is," Mr Guthrie said.
      Mr Guthrie was concerned the misrepresentation could cloud the thinking of school leavers as they make career choices.
      He said a factor that contributed to the misrepresentation was that men tended to be over-represented in fields such as engineering.
      "In addition, some of the larger wage gaps are observed in fields with relatively low response numbers, for example dentistry and optometry, which could make them unreliable.""

      Commenter
      Carstendog
      Location
      Here
      Date and time
      February 05, 2013, 10:27AM
    • @Gabe, just because women in the western world are better off than their sisters in less wealthy or liberal countries does not mean that should stop striving for equality. Your argument is condescending and nonsensical.

      Commenter
      J
      Date and time
      February 05, 2013, 2:09PM
    • I have tried to twice post a comment in support of Carstendog's statements however despite my comment not contravening commenting policy I have been censored. Since I cannot express my views on the misuse of this kind of data, look up the article "Wage Gap Myth Exposed -- By Feminists".

      Commenter
      missxiola
      Date and time
      February 05, 2013, 3:58PM
    • @ carstendog

      So why exactly is it that men are overrepresented in the highly paid fields?

      In my own experiences in law women were simply expected to go into the lower paid sectors of the profession, and regardless of their wishes or skills were pushed in that direction because they weren't given equal opportunities to access the highly paid areas, in part because of the stereotypes and assumptions that women belonged in those lower paid sectors.

      It's all very well to argue that women aren't getting equal pay because they aren't doing the same precise jobs, but it's completely meaningless if you don't also examine why women are pushed, trapped, and pressured into those lower paid positions while being excluded from higher paid professions and roles.

      That is what is at the core of the equal pay debate, and if you won't address that issue you're really not contributing anything meaningful and are just making poor excuses.

      Commenter
      Erikah
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      February 05, 2013, 9:36PM
    • It's more complex than that. Too often the influence of basic structures in our society are overlooked. If one sets up an unhealthy social structure, the result is an unhealthy society. Patriarchy is about controlling female reproduction to own children and control wealth. It's inherently hierarchical. Hierarchies may seem to provide some efficiency, but they're essentially unhealthy because they create power imbalances and concentrate power in the hands of a few, which attracts those who want to wield power for themselves in the first place, whether male or female. Combine that with the inherent greed of capitalism, and you have, well, Australian business and politics! (Interestingly, Ross Gittins has an article in smh today touching on this aspect:

      http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/the-four-industries-that-rule-australia-20130205-2dwew.html)

      The evidence we do have of 'matriarchies' show that they tend to be egalitarian, not pure opposites of patriarchy where men oppress women, which is why, strictly speaking, they aren't matriarchies. For example, the Hopi Native American Indians are still matrilineal, they were matrilocal, had no standing army and so weren't constantly at war with their neighbours. They were egalitarian so they operated with sexual equality.

      The Iroquois Indians, more a gynocracy, similarly were matrilineal. Women controlled the land, and government was egalitarian, with equal numbers of men and women. Men were chiefs, women were clan-mothers. Declarations of war had to be approved by the clan-mothers.

      Those Western social democracies that are the most egalitarian, the Scandinavian countries, tend to have flat business structures rather than hierarchical ones, and prefer to operate through consensus. The participation of women in business and politics is the highest in the western world. They also have the best parental leave for men as well as women.

      Commenter
      Mythbuster
      Date and time
      February 06, 2013, 10:01AM
  • You know, I don't think that women specifically back-stab other women to get ahead. I think that there are certain types of women who will back-stab ANYONE to get ahead. Ditto there are women who enjoy exerting their influence to the detriment of the people beneath them in the name of "enjoying the perks of the job." But the thing is that there are men who do these same things - it's just not talked about as often or held up as an example of one gender being "its own worst enemy." Take the gender out of the equation and you're left with a bunch of people most of us would classify as, well, a@#holes. Male or female doesn't matter.

    What does sadden me is the number of people in general who are willing to behave so badly. Getting ahead at all costs seems a pretty terrible way to live, no matter how much money you end up making. A real hollow victory.

    Commenter
    TK
    Date and time
    February 05, 2013, 8:38AM
    • Brilliant article Clementine! So well articulated on a very cloudy subject. There is always one of these women you describe on these blogs. Regular commenter Bev for example. There were several in yesterday's piece about men giving up seats for women on the bus. "All you women princesses need to put on man shoes, conform to the mens view, and get the balance of being half male and half female while being yourself but not completely just right. Then you too can be liked by the gender who's 'like' is of greatest value instead of trotting ignorantly around within the minority gender ranks. And all the rest of that sort of pilava.

      Commenter
      Rachael
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 05, 2013, 8:47AM
      • Rachel, telling someone who is complaining that their feet hurt because of their shoes to choose different shoes isn't railing on someone because they are female. It's pointing out the idiocy of whinging about the choices one makes and expecting someone else to make up for one's own deficiencies. That is ridiculous, regardless of gender.

        I am female. I wear trainers on the bus and change to heels at work. Why? Because I don't want to arrive at work already foot-sore. Perhaps a bit of common sense is in order.

        Commenter
        TK
        Date and time
        February 05, 2013, 9:59AM
      • Thanks TK, but the comments were about the stability of heels on a bus, not sore feet. You suggest that wearing heels on public transport shows a deficiency of common sense in the wearer, but women appear most professional when they are wearing these shoes on the job. So what is a woman who utilises public transport while actually working to do? Appear less-professional but not deficient in common sense, or professional but lacking common sense? Or perhaps we can just accept that women wear high heels and use our own common sense and make a seat for them? After all, society manages to accept that boys love watching other boys chase balls around a field and that doesnt make a whole of common sense either.

        Commenter
        Rachael
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        February 05, 2013, 12:01PM

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