I have heard the accusation that it is women who pull down women so much that it is beginning to sound like a fact. Sometimes it is women who are in public administration and politics accusing female journalists of not doing enough to change the negative portrayal of women in the media. Other times it is women in civil society accusing female politicians of ‘changing’ when they get power and thus not doing enough to empower poor and marginalised women. Still, other times it is we, the academics, accused of not doing enough to mentor younger brilliant women. It is sadly becoming a sticking narrative worth exploring.
My classic story of this accusation I heard from a lady who told me how a certain chief executive officer, known for her strict leadership and no tolerance for mediocrity, gave a warning to one of her staff. This staff, aware that her boss was a Christian who deeply loved the Lord and prayed diligently, came with her Bible and spent much of her working time reading the Word. Her boss, after several warnings, decided she would dismiss her. The one telling me the story expressed shock. ‘How could she think of firing her? She is a Christian and moreover a fellow woman.’ I was amused by this and smile each time I think of it.
It is unfortunate that many women actually believe that other women will be intent on failing them.
The problem, it appears, stems from different processes of producing knowledge and expectations on the few women who have a public voice. The main source of this narrative is personal experience. We experience some things and think they are the norm. We become ensnared by what in research we call the four errors of personal experience.
With most personal experiences, we suffer from the ‘halo effect’, where prior reputation of persons or places colour our evaluation of situations; premature closure that makes one reach a decision before they have the amount of depth of evidence needed to do so; selective observation that reinforces preexisting thinking rather than observing in a neutral and balanced manner; and overgeneralisation that collapses one group into a single whole common in the judgement of women.
In many ways, these narratives have persisted as a result of personal experiences that get overgeneralised. I have carefully listened to the instances where women have claimed other women are pulling them down, and usually there is more to the story. This is not to belittle anyone’s personal experience.
I found a lot of evidence to the contrary, throughout my interviews with women and continued interaction with those in various leadership positions. I have heard stories of women walking with them in their journey of career growth. There are many instances where women are actively doing their best to ensure that it will be easier on the next generation of women to aspire to play certain roles in society beyond their homes. It does not pay them well for the sacrifices and heat or labels they take for it.
Surely, there are cases of men pulling men down, but that is normalised. Men are not expected to support other men in the pursuit of their dreams and goals simply because they are men, but women are even when the women’s goals and value systems are far from connected. I know that there are countless men who support women’s careers and allow women to soar as husbands, friends, brothers, colleagues and supervisors, but those stories are not told.
Perhaps the job is for parents to bring up girls in ways that allow them to excel without seeking external validation for everything. It is a given that as a human being, there will be people who do not like you, appreciate your ways of doing things or celebrate your milestones. That there will be people making judgement that are far from reality, but not to allow such to define them. It is important to bring up girls with character that cultivates their confidence and competence to be the best.
I have personally supported many young women, at least those who are interested in demonstrating seriousness and are teachable or open to learning with the right attitude. I have had the privilege of being championed by some of the most amazing women in my life, who have been part of my defining moments. Many of them have not only held my hand in the past, but I have seen them champion other women. I do not look to only women for inspiration but also to the brilliant men whose respect I have won and I admire.
While I cannot generalise my great experience, I know that there may be more to this claim that requires unpacking. I have experienced meanness too, but it has to do with their personality rather than gender. We may wish to desist from over generalising or else fall in the trap of reinforcing stereotypes that emanate from our traditions, media myths and personal experiences that only limit women.
Dr Maractho is the head and senior lecturer, Department of Journalism and Media
studies at UCU. firstname.lastname@example.org