Recently, I was asked to join a panel discussing the topic, “All Women Hate Each Other” at The Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas with Eva Cox, Germaine Greer and Tara Moss.
It was an incredible line-up, with plenty of “dangerous ideas” raised during the session.
Tara’s arguments are best summed up by the excellent opinion piece she had published in the Sydney Morning Herald just before the event: Mean boys the worst culprits. In it, she wrote;
“From the sports field to the boardroom, male ambition and competitiveness is praised, yet the term “ambitious”, when it describes a female, is often used with ambivalence. There is a nasty side to female competition and aggression, we are told. The perils of female-on-female cruelty continue to be widely discussed by academics and journalists, and frequently portrayed in popular entertainment, from the breakout 2004 comedy Mean Girls, to reality shows like Real Housewives. It’s widely understood that women are “their own worst enemies”…
Yet this focus on female cruelty seems curious, when you consider that “mean boys” are far more likely to cause physical injury and death…
The fact remains unarguable – dangerous social behaviours and acts of aggression and harm are overwhelmingly perpetrated by males.”
Germaine and Eva both provided thought provoking ideas, including a few that I personally wanted to challenge.
Germaine described watching a group of male businessmen at lunch. She said it was almost a scene reminiscent of the film Gorillas in the Mist; the most powerful “Silverback” assuming his position within the group and the others (with their clearly defined roles, the joker, the sidekick etc) positioning themselves around him. “Why don’t women network in this way?” she asked, proposing that women are not as good at building networks of support.
As someone who has been in education for over 20 years, working with teen girls on a weekly basis, I had to counter this by declaring that anyone watching adolescent girls at lunch time (particularly in single-sex schools) would observe a very similar power dynamic. Girls know where to sit in the playground (their location saying much about their standing within the social network of their school) and also often sit surrounding the most socially dominant female. In fact, girls are very good at reading social environments and vying for power within these.
Perhaps the real issue may be whether, in fact, our young women lose this capacity to build empires once they enter the workplace, and if they do, why is this so? Could it be that our workplaces do not allow for opportunities for women to connect in this way? Many working women claim they struggle to maintain a balance between home and the workplace and may, therefore, be less likely to invest precious time in socialising and networking (activities which are often perceived as almost “optional extras” rather than core responsibilities).
At the recent Australian Leadership Awards I attended in Melbourne, I heard from a number of women leaders. When asked about how we might help improve outcomes for women in the workplace, many spoke about the real barriers to women in leadership being culturally embedded. These include the belief that he/she who works the longest hours is the most committed. One woman summed up her frustrations as: “At my workplace there are diversity policies in place which have allowed me to work part-time and re-enter the workplace twelve months after having my daughter. But the issue for me is that all the important conversations seem to happen after 5pm when I’ve left! The guys at my office tend to stay back and brainstorm and plan. When I get back in at 9am the next day, I feel out of the loop.”
In fact, very few women I spoke with said they ever had time to go to lunch with their colleagues, often because in order to leave punctually to get home to do their “second shift” with their family, they often ate at their desks.
I believe women will better utilise their networking skills when there is more equality around domestic work in our homes. When women actually have the time and energy they need to once again engage in the power “dance” they practiced regularly, and skillfully, as young girls.
Similarly, I challenged Germaine when she said girls and women are not very good at “chilling out”. Ask any parent: teen girls are often particularly gifted at engaging in down time! Again, perhaps due to the fact that women are doing the lioness’ share of the work at home, young women may be at risk of losing the ability to unwind and can fall into the trap (one I know I often fall into) of believing we must do everything, all at once, all on our own, by the time they reach adulthood.
Finally, I would like to make a plea for kindness. For I fear we are killing it.
On my blog, I recently discussed research that shows a deeply ingrained belief that the most important qualities of a leader are assertiveness and competitiveness, and that these are perceived as male traits, while women are expected to be nice and compassionate. Why our culture sees being nice and compassionate as at odds with leadership is an interesting question in itself. But for now, I’d like to focus on the fact that both Eva and Germaine challenged the assumption that women are expected to be “nice”, and seemed to imply that women could be as unpleasant as they wanted to be (insert cheering from the crowd).
While I agree that women shouldn’t have any particular obligation to be pleasant or agreeable simply by virtue of their gender (we are not “God’s Police”), I would contend that in environments like workplaces (and schools), which force people together who may not have a natural affiliation with each other, life is far more bearable if everyone, regardless of sex, is considerate and cooperative. Or, as we state in our workshop on developing positive relationships, not necessarily friends, but friendly.
Of course I am at risk of either sounding naive or idealistic here. But research clearly shows that those who do engage with others in a positive way tend to be happier and more resilient. Many schools, in fact, are now following positive education principles which include teaching kindness, and fairness.
Why is it that being “nice” is considered somewhat old fashioned and a sign of weakness? We almost celebrate the rude, aggressive, and impolite (we certainly pay them well. Think Alan Jones and Kyle Sandilands). We fall into the trap of perceiving those who act negatively as more powerful, and excuse our own poorer behaviours with phrases such as “I don’t owe it to anyone…”, “I never asked for it” and “why should I be nice? He/she’s not”.
In one of the other Festival Of Dangerous Ideas sessions titled “Abolish Private Schools”, Jane Caro argued, as a part of a broader discussion on how we rank schools based on the limited criteria established by tests like NAPLAN, that one of the things that makes us most successful are our social skills – particularly, our ability to get along with others. I wholeheartedly agree. I also know that getting along with others requires having the time and energy to do so (which, as I’ve argued, are challenges we need to work away at for many women in the workplace), and will involve us all learning to be a little nicer to each other- regardless of gender.
Let’s not be misled into believing “haters” rule.