Equal, Together: Reflections on International Women’s Day 2020 - RSA

Equal, Together: Reflections on International Women’s Day 2020

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In response to International Women’s Day’s campaign “Each for Equal,” Shauna Aaron FRSA argues that women need to do more, together, by supporting each other, specifically in the workplace. She asks readers to share their own experiences, to elicit strategies and tools to engender a more equal workplace built on the power of female relationships.

After attending, as well as hosting, events across London celebrating International Women’s Day, I keep coming back to this year’s theme of “Each for Equal.” Each for Equal rightfully celebrates the importance of individual achievements to support a gender equal world. However, it misses the criticality of female support networks. Individual achievements are impactful, but instead of Each for Equal, why not Equal, Together?

Female support networks have been integral to my own personal and professional development. In the workplace specifically, I have been fortunate enough to work with inspiring women who have provided constructive feedback, built confidence, and celebrated my professional milestones. On the other hand, I have also suffered from--and contributed to--antagonistic behaviour among women, particularly in high-achieving, male-dominated industries like law and technology.

What do I mean by antagonistic behaviour? I am referring to insidious, negative female aggression at work, which often manifests itself in glares, offhand remarks, and other microaggressions. Take, for instance, a classic example of female aggression: what I’ve dubbed The Passive Aggressive CC. In the context of women-on-women combat, The Passive Aggressive CC occurs when Person A CCs Person C (where Person C is an individual of authority/influence) in an email to Person B, with the intention of undermining Person B.

The Passive Aggressive CC is difficult to describe in the abstract, but myriad examples have surfaced in my own life. About six years ago, in my third month as an associate at an elite New York law firm, I had a particularly bad run-in with The Passive Aggressive CC. It occured the day before Christmas Eve in the middle of the night. A senior associate emailed me, CCing the partner, to ask if I could please email her my research in the next hour as the other associate, also CC'd, had “already” turned in his research. My heart sank as I opened the email in bed, half asleep and drained from the long hours spent at the office that week. I was confused and upset. The senior associate had explicitly stated that the assignment was not due for at least a week. The email was clearly intended to undermine my confidence and put me in a competitive position against my peer, the other associate.

The Passive Aggressive CC is just one example of subtle aggression that often occurs between females. It is easily linked to the phenomenon of the Queen Bee, a woman who treats subordinates more harshly if they are female. Queen Bees tend to exist in high-achieving, male-dominated fields like law or finance. Many writers have sought to debunk the notion of the Queen Bee. For example, Sheryl Sandberg, of Facebook and LeanIn fame, and Adam Grant, professor at Wharton, have argued that Queen Bees are “far less common than we think.” Sandberg and Grant point to quantitative data that female executives spend more time helping younger women than undermining them. My experience differs substantially. Importantly, I have found that cattiness is less common between a female executive and her subordinate, and more common between women on equal (or similar) levels: for example, between a senior associate and a junior associate (as in the example above). I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another obvious setback informing their OpEd: Sandberg and Grant occupy positions of immense power and privilege. Grant is an established professor at a prestigious academic institution (read: white, educated male) and Sandberg is a C-suite member at one of the most valuable companies in the world. Ultimately, however, I adamantly agree with the writers’ claims that female mentors and relationships are crucial to workplace success.

In the spirit of continuing to advocate for female empowerment in the workplace, I am soliciting  feedback from women across sectors and roles on their experiences with female aggression at work. In particular, what sorts of Queen Bee or other behaviours have you dealt with at work? How have you dealt with these experiences, and have you been able to overcome them? How do you think we can rid ourselves of these behaviours in the workplace? I am ultimately interested in answering one thing: how can we as women support one another and lift each other up without resorting to immature behaviours that undermine our success?

My fundamental belief is that women need to continue to support other women to achieve gender parity in the workplace. After all, until women start to respect other women, how do we expect men to? Here’s to women for women: “Equal, Together.”

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  • Interesting article, thank you.
    Emails are definitely an interesting territory. From my experience is really in those details and intentions behind behavior that you can really feel supported (or not).
    I work in a different field where not only the behaviour you described is probably less accepted (independently from gender) but is also problematic and concerning in many ways for the nature of the job. I just had one experience so far which was resolved by reporting internally. After a mediation meeting there was a clear change in behaviour. I am aware it doesn’t always work like this. Often things don’t get so far. If nothing can be done, I think is also important to understand when is the case to move out.
    It is also difficult to pin down and be sure about why a person is targeted (e.g. being a woman). Having said so, I really liked reading your reflections because you can read a lot about feminism and new campaigns, but these kind of experiences are not voiced frequently.

  • Thank you Shauna - a very thought provoking article. 

    As a fellow of the RSA and a member of WACL ( established in 1923 to support women in the advertising and marketing  industry)  I agree that women supporting each other is really important  - as well as hugely rewarding.

    BUT IWD should remind us this is far from being  the main problem - the biggest obstacles to women succeeding in the workplace , in society and in life are not other women...

    I am also rather fearful that the impact of Covid-19 will be disproportionate on women across the world whether as unpaid carers / more likely to be on zero hours contracts etc etc

    • Thanks Breffni. I appreciate your feedback, and agree that the biggest obstacle is entrenched inequality rather than other women. Re the COVID-19 impact on women, not sure if you saw the following NYT post, but your reply was particularly prescient: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/12/us/women-coronavirus-greater-risk.html?linkId=84491768. 

  • A very insightful post on the modern workplace! Thanks for writing. 

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