For at least as long as women have been serious contenders in the workforce, there have been messages (some subtle and others less so) that there is a small, finite amount of space for female employees. If a woman is a "token" worker, then there is only so much space available for you. Another woman with a similar background who has skills or experience that you don't becomes a threat. She could take that position and then there would be no room for you. This paradigm creates a sense of competition between women. The caricature of the cutthroat career woman is furthered by media. When successful women are portrayed in movies and TV, so often they are in that position because they were "bitchy" and "ruthless" to get there, and they have to continue to be that way to stay there. But these behaviors are taught to us long before entering the workforce. Think of all the media you consumed as a child that taught you girls were supposed to be clique-ish. The popular girls are always mean; they've achieved social success because they tear down anyone who threatens them.
Doesn't all of that sound exhausting? If you've ever been in a situation like that (either as the "mean girl" or as the "victim") you know it is exhausting. More than that, it's counterproductive. It's also totally unnecessary. The message that we need to somehow defeat other women in order to be successful is a mirage. The only reason this was ever true was because all the power was in the hands of men who were reluctant to bring women onto their teams. This dynamic is slowly changing, and in order to be part of the change, we need to stop playing by the rules of an out of date game. The fact is, the more successful women are in positions of power, the easier it is for young women to follow in their footsteps. Women in these roles can create space for more women on their teams, as well as provide an example to follow.
So how do we make this happen? To make change on the large scale, we must start with ourselves as individuals. Whether in school, our career, or personal life, identify the women around you who seem to have it figured out. It's easy for your knee-jerk reaction to these people to be envy; monitor these feelings and identify the cause. Is she more successful in her career? Really good at a hobby you've been struggling to stick with? Fashionable? Friendly? Funny? What could you learn from her? Surrounding yourself with people admire can only make you a better person. Birds of a feather. If you haven't read Ann Friedman's article about Shine Theory yet, I suggest you check it out here because, at its core, that’s what this blog is all about. Surrounding yourself with women you admire, instead of playing into the catty, cutthroat stereotypes, is good for everyone. People will automatically assume good things about you if you're close with good people. You're likely to pick up the good habits that have contributed to your friends’ successes. And more likely than not, you'll discover that you have positive traits that she's admiring in you!
By forming these friendships, we're also forming alliances. If they're in your field, you're expanding your professional network. And if not, you're expanding you're personal one. Always look for opportunities to create space for others to succeed. Look out for each other. Lift each other up. If we make these practices part of our daily habits, we're contributing to the broader goal and lifting up women everywhere.