Comment: Sisters doing it to ourselves: how women can perpetuate sexism

(Dave Thompson/PA Wire)

#Yesallwomen generated more than 2.3 million tweets but ignored the ways we women put our stilettos into each other.

The social norms keeping Australian women in a one-down position belong to a society in which most people are female.

We see examples of girl-on-girl sexism emerging in the primary school change room, growing in the university cafe, and flourishing in boardrooms. To reduce sexism, it’s all of us, not just men, who must stop perpetuating it. In particular, we women have to stop kicking down as a way to climb up.

One of our earliest illustrations of misogyny by women occurs when young girls appraise each other's bodies and equate looks with social worth. Girls as young as three and four are aware of body image and that “thin is better”, according to Dr Sarah Cavanagh, psychologist and manager of KidsMatter at the Australian Psychological Society. By age seven, girls’ body image is already poorer than boys’, which wastes their mental energy and contributes to mental illness.

Sometimes women use sexism to keep their workplace rank. The few women in leadership (still only 3.5% of CEOs), can perpetuate inequality by becoming “Queen Bees”- successful women who are unhelpful or detrimental to the progression of other women. Their attitude says: “I did it hard. So should you.”

To stop girls burdening each other, Cavanagh says to watch our own comments. She explains: “Children who are more satisfied with their body image often have a more well-rounded picture of themselves and recognise their talents in a range of areas.” She encourages compliments like: ‘I loved the way you comforted your brother,’ rather than, ‘That’s a pretty dress’.

In adolescence, the messages girls give each other become more confusing – be attractive but not too sexy. "Slut-shaming" enforces the double standard where men are sexually assertive and women shouldn’t be. And shaming each other for “slutty” behaviour is not always about promiscuity. In a new in-depth study, researchers lived in a US college dorm. They heard affluent female residents use slut-shaming to keep poorer girls in their place while experimenting more freely themselves.

On entering the workforce, women continue to discriminate against women. In a randomised double-blind 2012 study, female scientists were equally biased as male scientists in hiring a lab manager. They assessed either “John” or “Jennifer”, whose applications were identical. They both rated John as more competent, offered him US $3,730 more and were keener to mentor him than Jennifer. It adds to the evidence showing we rate women as less competent in areas ranging from music to leadership.

Sometimes women use sexism to keep their workplace rank. The few women in leadership (still only 3.5% of CEOs), can perpetuate inequality by becoming “Queen Bees”- successful women who are unhelpful or detrimental to the progression of other women. Their attitude says: “I did it hard. So should you.”

Associate Professor Isabel Metz from Melbourne Business School says the anecdotal evidence indicates sexism among women at work is prevalent. This may be because senior women are still rare and their behaviour is noticed. Nevertheless, the Workplace Bullying Institute says female bullies target other women 80% of the time. Almost all women surveyed by the American Management Association (95%) were undermined by a woman in their careers.

Such treatment based on gender has been illegal for the 30 years of the Australian Sex Discrimination Act, yet it continues. “There is a growing recognition that efforts to achieve equality between men and women have stalled,” says Dr Meagan Tyler, Sociology Lecturer at Victoria University. Waiting for senior managers – mostly male - to support talented women hasn’t worked. Women need inspiring examples for their careers, and will be left wanting if few female leaders step up.

Women (and men) need to see leaders comfortably straddling the stereotypes of “boss” and “woman”: being assertive and decisive yet respectful and compassionate; and achieving success while caring for family. Some ask why they should fight sexism simply because they are women. But if equality isn’t happening with men in charge, those women with greater power have greater responsibility.

To understand girl-on-girl sexism, Tyler talks about lateral violence – members of lower ranked groups attacking each other to claw back status. Other researchers discuss unconscious bias – mental habits we’ve absorbed from our culture that control our gut reactions. In a 2013 issue of the prestigious Nature journal, Stanford neurobiologist Jennifer Raymond says changing unconscious bias is like changing physical habits. She says if we acknowledge the prejudice we all have, we can overcome it with deliberate practice.

If women are uncomfortable with the roles society gives us, we must recognise that we are society. We can consciously bypass our bias. We can compliment girls for their skills, not their looks, and stop judging sex lives that don’t concern us. Happily, 2.3 million tweets tweets suggest that #yesallwomen have energy for change. Rather than using it to point the finger at men, let’s help each other be whatever type of woman we want to be.

Louise Wedgwood is a health and lifestyle writer.