While we’re all still recovering from the Google memo, Olga Khazan has published a fascinating piece for the Atlantic: Why Do Women Bully Each Other at Work?
The piece highlights, with empirical research, how women often respond to sexism against women by engaging in sexism against women.
I wrote about this years ago:
I’ve long been fascinated by female anti-feminism. I think the best explanation is that it is a subconscious coping strategy. Gaining the approval of those in charge of a sexist society (men) opens up access to the perks and opportunities of masculinity. Anti-feminists align themselves with oppressors to take advantage of their considerable powers of protection. One former anti-feminist woman wrote that she engaged in sexism against women, “To get what I could from them using the only weapons readily available to me — my body, my charm, my femininity and my compliance.”
- Anti-feminism understands power as zero-sum and seeks to maintain male hegemony.
- Anti-feminism misunderstands economic gains as zero-sum and seeks to deny women the ability to compete economically with men unencumbered by sexism.
- Anti-feminism scapegoats women for the decreasing economic value of brute strength which is in fact an inevitable result of technological innovation. Anti-feminism blames women for the inevitable decline in economic status of low-skill, low-education, low-intelligence men.
- Anti-feminism justifies misogyny through superstition, including religious beliefs, and pseudoscience, including evolutionary psychology and a flawed understanding of neuroscience which they use to overstate the impact of gender or intellectual capability.
- Anti-feminism smears feminists as misandrists and incorrectly claims feminists don’t care about male-targeted sexism.
- Anti-feminism condescends to women by claiming they don’t know what’s good for them.
- Anti-feminism blames feminists for boys’ poorer performance in schools instead of gender norms which teach boys to behave in ways that are fundamentally incompatible with learning.
I saw a particular kind of anti-feminism in the way some women responded to the Google memo.
One woman felt compelled to let me know that being condescended to, talked over, and dismissed by male and female colleagues was not an experience unique to women.
But feminism does not hold that being underestimated, passed over, talked over, dismissed, and ignored is unique to women. Feminism holds that people rarely do these things to men on the basis of their gender. And that being underestimated, passed over, talked over, dismissed, and ignored on the basis of our gender on a regular basis makes it harder for women to accomplish the same amount with the same effort and talent in the workplace.
This same woman also felt compelled to correct the record on all women having experienced sexism while working in tech, because she never did. The message is often that because these women have never noticed being underestimated, etc. due to their gender those other women should stop being whiners.
Sexism is a hard thing to prove, since people are rarely honest and upfront about it. It’s also often invisible. You don’t know how many times you’ve been passed over because “girls aren’t good at that” and never told why. That doesn’t mean it’s not empirically demonstrable. When asked whether they want to work for a woman, most people say no. Women are interrupted more when speaking than men. Women are assumed to be less competent based purely on our gender. Women who offer honest feedback are liked less and considered less hirable than similarly candid men.
It’s comforting to think you’ve never been discriminated against at work due to your gender, but it’s much more likely that you just didn’t realize it was happening.
That you succeeded despite sexism does not mean sexism does not exist.
And now Khazan is describing similar phenomena.
“Rudman found that some women’s disparagement of other women can be explained by what’s called ‘system justification,’ a psychological concept in which long-oppressed groups, struggling to make sense of an unfair world, internalize negative stereotypes,”Khazan wrote.
When there are few opportunities for women relative to the number of women who want them, being a woman is obviously a huge disadvantage. Research shows that women behave as you’d expect. The fewer open spots for women, the less cooperation women engage in with other women. Women in heavily male-dominated spaces are less likely to work together with other women and more likely to undermine and backstab other women. It’s a bitch-eat-bitch world in male-dominated spaces. Harvard Business Professor Robin Ely calls this “tokenism.”
Queen-bee behavior arises under certain circumstances—like when a woman believes that the path to success is so narrow, she can barely squeeze through herself, let alone try to bring others along with her.
Think of the “cool girl” who casually notes, “All my friends are guys”—as though it just naturally happened that way. Or the overachiever who saves her harshest feedback for her female colleagues, while the men in the office get sports talk and fist bumps. Women like Susan, the financial adviser I met in Washington, “get along with men better,” as she put it, because it pays to get along with whoever’s at the top.
Cool girls being so wrapped up in believing that they are not like other girls is, ironically, a pretty great example of subtle-but-effective sexism. They’ve bought into the idea that disparate representation is due to the typical woman being less fit for power and success than the average man (but they just happen to be exceptional) so thoroughly that it’s become part of their identity.
“Women, like all human beings, respond to the situation they’re in,” Ely said.
A Dutch psychologist named Naomi Ellemers found that senior women in Academia often responded to gender discrimination not by questioning the premise that women aren’t as likely to have many of the qualities highly valued in the workplace, but that they aren’t like most women. “Queen bees,” Ellemers calls them.
Ellemers and Derks conducted a small study in 2011 for which they asked 63 Dutch policewomen—who are far outnumbered by their male colleagues—to recall a time they had experienced sexism at work. That reminder prompted many of the officers to emphasize the ways they’re not like other women and to downplay the prevalence of sexism. In other words, thinking about how bad it is to be a woman made certain officers not want to be seen as women. And it wasn’t just something women did: In another small study, when Derks and other researchers prompted Surinamese immigrants in the Netherlands to recall an instance of discrimination against their group, many expressed lower opinions of one another and behaved more stereotypically Dutch.
Think of former Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer’s quote about another of her old jobs: “I’m not really a woman at Google; I’m a geek at Google.”
Another manifestation of this impulse is called “competitive threat.” This is when women undermine other women before they achieve anything. For instance, Khazan talked to a woman whose work friend spread rumors that she was promiscuous and unqualified. Seven out of 10 respondents to a 2016 survey of women working in the tech industry said they’ve had female rivals in the workplace make demeaning comments about them. “I had two female colleagues who suggested I try to look ‘less pretty’ to be taken more seriously,” a respondent wrote. “One suggested a breast reduction.” A female colleague literally once wrote that women who write about libertarian politics should cover their boobs up more to be taken more seriously. This same woman told me I should write less about sex in order to be taken more seriously when I write about policy, because apparently writing about sex reduces my qualifications to write about policy?
Shaming women for refusing to conform to frankly sexist norms is sexism! What compels people to engage in sexism when they could criticize it instead? Oh right, gaining the approval of those in charge of a sexist society (men) opens up access to the perks and opportunities of masculinity. In a sexist society, your best bet is to make sure everyone knows you’re not like other women.
Luckily, the research shows that internalized misogyny decreases as external misogyny decreases. Women who work in more even-gendered offices are friendlier toward other women more and treat them better. When people are asked about their actual bosses, instead of a theoretical boss, they report the same level of satisfaction regardless of gender. Reducing sexism reduces sexism.
But in the meantime, if you feel the need to talk about how you’re not like other girls or tell women to behave more in line with sexist norms, please stop. Just accept that you’re just like all other women. It’s okay. Really. A woman is an awesome thing to be.