In the January/February issue, we explored the perception that women do not support other women. We peeled back layers of misconceptions and uncovered underlying patterns and dynamics. Part II will equip you with ways to interrupt these patterns and be an agent for positive change, as an individual or a leader.
There’s a common theme underpinning many of the dynamics we’ve discussed: “A system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” Yes – I just provided a Merriam-Webster definition of patriarchy. It is not women’s responsibility to dismantle patriarchal power structures, but we can understand our options to disrupt patterns that create barriers to equality.
The benefits are priceless. Envision a world in which we consistently find joy in each other’s successes, where we can rely on professional sisterhood for allyship and encouragement, where we pass down knowledge and wisdom between generations, and where we reject outdated stereotypes and biases.
Breaking the Patterns
When discussing thorny topics in my workshops, I offer a standard evaluation sequence: “Internal, External, Context,” and each step is approached with curiosity and compassion. First, we start with understanding ourselves:
- What are the perceived threats and stories?
- What outcome are we seeking?
- How are our values challenged?
Self-awareness gives us a priceless moment between reaction and response to select the most effective path toward our goals. Next, we put ourselves in our counterparts’ shoes and try to understand what motivations, threats or biases might be influencing them. What knowledge, capability and resources are they operating with? What do we know as fact, and what information is missing? Lastly, we look at context. What are the cultural and structural elements at play? How do history, power dynamics and economic forces influence this situation? As we break down some of the challenges that lead to unsupportive behaviors and explore how to disrupt these patterns, you’ll notice this sequence emerge.
Challenge: Our Own Biases
The call is coming from inside the house! Biases, or heuristics, are mental shortcuts that help ration brain capacity to keep us alive (thanks, brain!), but typical of shortcuts, they can cause errors. In fact, our brains prioritize loss aversion over gain-seeking at a rate of 2:1, tricking us into protecting the status quo instead of taking risks for a better future (aptly called “loss aversion bias”). We all live at the intersections of various identities and thus various biases. Sometimes, the biases we inherit are about others, and sometimes they’re about ourselves.*
- The first step is awareness. Statements like “I’m not like most women” or “The problem with most women is…” are strong indicators of internalized misogyny.
- Even when we’re aware of a bias, we often can’t mitigate it without putting some guardrails in place. For example, you can utilize free tools like “gender decoders” to check your writing for bias.
- Break the cycle. Be the woman who raises up other women when they’re not in the room, who has their backs, and challenges sexist language about their peers.
*Note: We won’t explore how to diagnose racial bias in this article because it deserves its own discussion, but we know there’s a gap worth exploring. For example, a 2020 LeanIn and SurveyMonkey study found that 80 percent of White employees viewed themselves as allies to women of color at work, while only 45 percent of Black women and 55 percent of Latinas said they had strong allies in the workplace.
Challenge: Artificial Scarcity
Pitting marginalized groups against one another by restricting resources is an age-old tactic to align those groups with existing power structures. It also exacerbates tribalism and racism as Jane Elliott demonstrated in her blue-eye/brown-eye experiments. When we focus on competing with each other, our energy is wasted holding ourselves back rather than fighting for sustainable change.
- Next time you’re tempted to seek male approval, attention or validation at the expense of other women, I want you to picture the classic Star Wars meme of Admiral Ackbar yelling, “It’s a trap!”
- Beware of the princess crown or the daughter dynamic. It may feel safer on a pedestal, but it is just as restrictive as a cage, and there’s usually only room for one.
- Women’s success in the workplace is not a “zero-sum.” When you feel threatened or competitive toward another woman, consider whether an alliance would be more fruitful.
Challenge: Fear of the Unknown
If women have largely been absent from our academic and professional lives, we may see them as an unknown and feel unsure about how to interact or what to expect.
- By leveraging self-awareness, we can catch the fear before reacting to it. Naming our emotions can be surprisingly challenging, but the more specificity, the better. Journaling or exploring your feelings with a trusted advisor can help.
- Instead of asking, “How will this negatively impact me?” (i.e., scarcity mindset), we can ask ourselves how it can be a fruitful relationship.
- Consider joining a group like Women Offshore or Women’s Energy Network (WEN) where you can develop professional friendships with other women in your field and normalize those relationships.
Challenge: She Started It
Sometimes we’re just reacting to another person’s behavior. If someone is disrespectful or mean, we’re not obligated to invest further in them. However, understanding what’s happening will allow us to be more effective and challenge the system rather than simply punishing the individual.
- First, differentiate between facts and assumptions. What story or narrative have you assigned to this person’s actions?
- That initial feeling of tension or aloofness can indicate that it’s time to reach out and connect. Chances are, it’s originating from a place of mutual fear, wariness or a history of being burned.
- Take a beat. Even if this person is genuinely malicious, you can take a strategic view versus a reactionary one. Understand what lessons are available and what’s best for your long-term well-being. Maybe it’s boundaries, but it’s likely not animosity and distrust.
I’ve been lucky to work with some incredible, supportive women during my career. Even so, I felt anxious when I received an assignment in Angola and learned my back-to-back would be another American woman. We would be two of the only Americans on board and two of the only women, so we were perfectly positioned to be put in competition and subject to comparison. We’d also be heavily reliant on each other for information and consistency. I was relieved to receive a message from LaToya telling me how excited she was for me to join the team, defusing my fears. We committed to having each other’s backs and communicating clearly and honestly. Our bond proved extremely important as we navigated that challenging role together. To this day, I count LaToya as a close friend and ally, and she currently serves on the advisory board for my company.
Not every situation has such a resolution. Recognize that sometimes you can leverage all of these tactics, and a woman may simply not be ready to engage in solidarity. If you’ve had bad experiences with individual women, remember that they had no more responsibility to represent the entire gender than you do. Try to understand where things went wrong and find solace in knowing that, for the most part, we’re all doing the best we can. Unlearning these behavioral patterns takes time. It takes rewiring how our brains perceive threats. It takes experience, maturity, and a longer-term, universal view of costs and benefits. Some women may never change; they may continue to align with a power structure that oppresses women for their entire lives. But, if one of those women does start to come around, I’d invite you to embrace them and forgive old grievances while taking the precautions you need to protect yourself. We need everyone in this together.
Engineer by trade. Diversity, equity and inclusion professional by choice. With a successful two decade career in the international energy industry, and having been one of the few women in her field, Erica D’Eramo has made it her life’s work to create diverse, inclusive and equitable workplaces through research, best practice and lived experiences. She is passionate about reconciling the academic perspective with practical application to enable organizations to elevate their DEI efforts and change the workplace landscape through those activities with the greatest impact. In 2016, D’Eramo founded Two Piers Consulting to support under-represented communities in the workforce, and provide companies with the tools and strategies to effectively create and grow truly diverse and inclusive workplaces. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Penn State University, and an Executive MBA from University of Texas at Austin. www.twopiersconsulting.com
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