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Why women are their own worst enemy in the workplace

In public discourse across the world, women’s empowerment is being championed. But it has taken the voices of millions of women saying the same thing to get others to pay attention and for real change to happen.

The #MeToo movement used anger to get heard, because nothing else worked. Pay parity in the entertainment industry is getting the right attention thanks to a collective, loud voice. And after years of challenging the status quo, more women are running and getting elected to public office, and female representation on boards is gradually growing. Even the corporate sector laggards are waking up to diversity and inclusion practices.

Yet in the past few weeks, the backslide in progress has been remarkable and somewhat dangerous.

Serena Williams is the obvious example. A mother coming back from maternity leave, eager to prove she’s still a champion, railed against an umpire who cost her a game. The opinions flew thick and fast. Some were incensed by her ‘lack of grace’, others were offended that she’d made this a woman’s issue, while a relative minority were downright racist in their condemnation (I’m looking at you, Herald Sun).

At first, the bylines and tweets from verified accounts that I read were mostly from men. But a few days later, it appeared that women, too, were tearing her down. The one that got to me the most was a female columnist for a business newspaper who accused Serena of having her Snow White moment. The comparison to this outdated fairytale depicting an older woman’s jealousy of youth and beauty was bizarre and reinforced a dangerous assumption of women at the top. In the words of the columnist: “The mirror was telling her [Serena] that a younger, stronger champion was rising in the land”.

It blows my mind that women still hold such a fierce bias against members of their own gender. Surprised as I was with the backlash, research shows this reaction isn’t entirely new.

Several published studies show that women don’t want to work for other women.

In 2011, UCLA lecturer Kim Elsesser analysed more than 60,000 responses from a study and found that women were more likely to want a male boss.

I can’t be sure, but if I had to make a guess, I’d say this is because the parameters of good behaviour vary significantly for women and men. Women are expected to be nice, modest, friendly and nurturing – and when we veer from that social script by being assertive, decisive, or in Serena’s case outraged – even the level-headed lot amongst us feels threatened.

I’ve experienced this first-hand. In an earlier job as an enthusiastic young reporter, I pushed back when a senior colleague shot down an idea of mine. Later, I discovered, she’d taken it quite personally and when we were alone in the room, she remarked, “In this part of the world, we [women] don’t challenge our superiors”.

In an article in The Atlantic, Laurie Rudman, a social psychologist at Rutgers University, explained this behaviour with the theory of “system justification” – a psychological concept in which long-oppressed groups internalise negative stereotypes. More tellingly, in one of her studies, Rudman asked participants to pick teammates for a game of Jeopardy from a pool of insecure and confident men and women. While confident contestants of both genders were seen as more capable, the female participants were undecided about choosing confident women over the insecure ones.

I’m very aware that there are no quick fixes to this. It’s going to take years, if not decades, for many of us to be happy about other women succeeding in the workplace and outside of it. But, a good place to start is by understanding and supporting your female colleagues – even if you don’t like it – and getting angry about things that simply aren’t fair. We shouldn’t sit down and cross our legs and politely ask for an injustice to be overturned.

Anger can be a vehicle to get the conversation started, but change will only come through the spread of knowledge and support.

I’m fortunate to work in a truly inclusive organisation where I’m entitled to voice my opinion no matter how unpopular it is, thanks in no small part to two amazing senior female colleagues who have my back. My wish is for every other woman and their daughters to have the same luxury.

Byravee Iyer is the managing editor at Mutant Communications.

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