Mean girls at work: How to say yes to the sisterhood | Women's Agenda

Mean girls at work: How to say yes to the sisterhood

In these new days of leaning into whatever (kids, the corner suite, your glowing purpose), one piece of solid advice stands the test of time. This solid, time-tested piece of leaning-in advice is understood by women everywhere except maybe in corporate culture. The advice? Five words: every girl needs a committee.

Replace “girl” with “woman”, and the advice is still a sure thing – women surrounded by support networks of other women do better at whatever, including promotion to senior management. Easy? Yeah – no. Not so fast. The phenomenon of senior women pulling up the ladder behind them, rather than mentoring other women, is well-known – and for some of us, the thought of a committee of female peers is about as nurturing as a shark tank full of sweet little minnows. I want to declare here that I am not one of them: I have three sisters so fierce and so fine they make me want a support group for every last woman I know.

Today, the shark/minnow thing is on my mind, because I’m meeting up with a new client at a little place, the Bean Alive Cafe, around the corner from her office. Alana’s boss has encouraged her to work on her tendency to isolate herself at work. Socially speaking, however, Alana’s adolescence was akin to open-heart surgery with no anaesthetic, and she’s not sure she wants a bar of it.

As renowned expert in feminist psychology, Carol Gilligan, has shown, little girls socialize in obvious patterns of inclusion and exclusion. It’s important to be clear that Gilligan doesn’t get into whether the causes of this are social or biological: she’s simply reporting what she’s observed. At their best, girls model co-operative behavior and interact empathically – while boys try to outdo each other as they establish social hierarchies (who leads, who follows). At their worst, the dynamics of little girl behavior have the potential to turn your average school playground into a minefield of imminent pain. Jordan doesn’t want to hang out with me anymore, because her new friend Trina says she can’t. The pain of little girls – we were them, and we feel it still.

By the time girls reach high school, these dynamics have increased in sophistication so that the space between the mean nice words gets harder to parse (“Wait, did she just put me down??”). Any woman still working through the slings and arrows of outrageous high school cliques should read The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School by journalist Alexandra Robbins. This book provides a fascinating account of peer-based behavior among teenagers (and yes, the boys and girls behave in gendered patterns) in an American high school. Required reading (I defy you to put it down) for those attending a high-school graduation – or starting a peer support group at work.

Back to Alana, who has no sisters, and whose mother was mostly too busy with epidemiology to pay her much attention. Growing up in Papua New Guinea (her parents were aid workers) she was one of the few white kids in her village school. Just before her thirteenth birthday, she was sent to boarding school in Sydney. Alana is a knock-out: tall, blonde, and not at all vain – and well into her thirties and she has trouble trusting Anglo women at work and outside it.

I’d like to see Alexandra Robbins write about a boarding school full of teenage girls. Alana has two words for Robbins: clique warfare. For obscure reasons (her manners were slightly off – she wasn’t used to white girls her own age), Alana’s beauty made her a target, rather than a celebrity. During a routine spate of boarding school thefts, Alana was identified as the culprit – and was shunned by her female peers for the rest of her schooling.

For Alana, the idea of building a network of supportive professional peers (highly predictive of whether she’ll make it through the shoals of middle management and into senior management) is downright frightening. Our goal in a seven-month course of meeting once a month is to rebuild her confidence in connecting with her women colleagues.

“I like men much better than women,” she reports into the cafe air, flicking her hair. The decor is rustic. “Women are bitchy and I don’t trust them.” Alana has just given me a lot of information about how she responds to the women in her professional orbit: as if they are bitchy and untrustworthy.

A few clues there about why she’s having trouble befriending them.

We keep talking, and the coffees arrive. I’m having trouble warming to her. Fearing exclusion with all the force of a tropical hurricane (not hard to understand why), I’m getting a sense that Alana rejects her potential friends at work with a habit of constant disagreement before they can break through her reserve.

“Are you rejecting your women colleagues so they don’t reject you?” I offer during our second session. Alana leans back from the distressed timber table (same cafe, same accordion-pleated cardboard cups), then looks down. “Sure,” she answers. The silence stretches out, and I realise she wants me to fill it. “What would be the antidote to rejection?” I ask. She shrugs, but she’s paying attention. “Acceptance,” she says, finally. I feel her knees start jiggling under the table.

Alana looks up. “Are you saying I’m now going to start looking for acceptance wherever I go? That sounds needy.” The cafe door slams in the wind, and I start to worry for the poor little cup she’s crushing in her graceful right hand. Truth is, Alana feels needy. Isolation as a way of life is lonely and sad – but seeking acceptance is a sure way to wind up watching Jane Austen movies – all by yourself – as a way of life.

I convey to Alana the advice from Eve Ensler’s TED talk on how to be happy. “What if the thing you want most, you have to give to others?” I ask, watching her and pretending not to. To my surprise, Alana nods. Her parents are aid workers, after all. “So you don’t have to seek acceptance,” I conclude, “you can just offer it, which is a powerful statement of what you value.”

Alana’s first assignment will be to spend the month saying yes as a way of signalling positive regard to her peers. Anytime she agrees, really truthfully agrees, with something a woman colleague says, she’ll let her know – and then leave it at that. A month later, she reports back, pleased with herself. The time has made quite a difference in her demeanor: there’s a noticeable ease in her walk as she arrives at the cafe for our third meeting.

Plopping herself down on the low wooden stool opposite me, she launches into a story. “I told my Director about my “saying yes” exercise, and she said I have a habit of disagreeing with everybody.” I smile as if this is news to me. “So I’ve started saying, “I couldn’t agree with you more” whenever I can. It’s actually getting easier and I’m surprised by how much nicer everybody seems.”

We part on good terms: Alana is showing an unexpected capacity to own and change her own behavior. This bodes well for her success in climbing out of the friendship rut she fell into almost a generation before – and into a peer support network that will help her lean in to whatever matters to her most.

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