The secret Facebook groups that are safe spaces for women on the internet

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e-decorating Photo: Stocksy

The internet has strayed far from the lofty utopian ideals of the late 1990s. From cyber-bullying to rape and death threats, the worst of humanity can invade your living room in a matter of clicks.

But some women are reclaiming parts of the internet, creating secret safe spaces to congregate and offer both personal and professional help and support.

"It's a bit of a man's world, and women in particular really need to help and support each other," says Catherine Brooks who is the founder of the women-only Facebook group, Help A Sister Out.

Brooks, who is an employment lawyer, set up the Facebook group two months ago and it has since grown to over 1000 members. All women are welcome to join and the main rules are to be respectful and no spam.

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The site is host to discussions on topics ranging from quotas to work-life balance. Members also offer advice about negotiating pay rises and employment contracts, managing a redundancy, how to dress for work, and even provide tech support.

The site is far more than a space to vent and dissent. The sisters also celebrate other members' successes and provide practical assistance to each other.

When a 19-year-old woman asked for advice about study options and career paths, a sister gave her a free career coaching session.

Another woman had a photographer cancel on her for an event at the last minute.

"She posted a request on Help A Sister Out, and within half an hour the sisters had hooked her up with a photographer," says Brooks.

The myth that older women are threatened by younger women and undermine them at every opportunity is as old and pervasive as Snow White. But Brooks sees examples everyday of older women helping younger members.

"Women have had to learn to work and live in a male-dominated world, and a lot of them from 30-plus have a genuine desire to make the path a little less bumpy for other women," Brooks says.

Brooks, who is a principal at Melbourne-based law form Moores, also rejects the myth that women are their own worst enemies.

"I hate any comments that women don't support each other. Our workplaces and society are not set up for women to help each other out. Help A Sister Out goes to show that when women are provided with the right forum and given access to other women, they are incredibly generous and supportive of each other."

Help A Sister Out mostly focuses on career and work issues, but there are other closed groups sprouting up to provide forums for support and assistance.

Binder Full Of Australian Women Writers, for example, is a closed group for any "women, genderqueer, and non-binary identifying writers" to post job opportunities, promote and share work, and to seek and share advice about the business of writing and the writing business.

There are also a number of invitation-only mothers' groups on Facebook.

Penelope Goodes set up a closed mothers' group so secret that she requested the group's name not be mentioned in this article.

"We provide a safe space to rant or cry or just get it all out, and at any time of the day or night. With the endless overnight feeds, there will usually be another mum right there to listen," says Goodes, who works as a book editor.

Established in 2011, the secret mothers' group now has 550 members. Goodes attributes much of the group's success to its supportive and non-judgmental culture.

"The group holds its lack of judgement and criticism very dearly, and responds quickly to correct anyone (usually a new member unfamiliar with the rules) who comments unkindly or seems to be pushing a particular agenda. It has actually required very little policing," she says.

"Because it is a secret group, all members have been vouched for by the person who added them, which makes it a much safer and gentler space than the wider anonymous internet."

While the mothers' group is not prepared to open their doors to non-referred members, they hope that their experience will debunk the competitive, 'judgmental mum' stereotype and inspire other mothers to create similar secret groups of their own.

Catherine Brooks says that the success of Help A Sister Out shows that there is an "an avalanche of female love and power coming".

"There's a really positive movement from a whole lot of women to counter the idea that feminism is bad, and show that it's actually women helping other women."

Kasey Edwards is a writer and best-selling author of Thirty-Something and Over It: What happens when you wake up and don't want to go to work. Ever again.