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Let’s Stop Holding Each Other Back

Being a career woman in a man’s world is tough! There are a lot of books on the topic; a number of panels and conferences dedicated to discussing it; and with Hillary Clinton running to become the country’s first female president, there are countless articles to read about it.

I love the attention the topic is getting these days and the issues that are being addressed by such discussions. But something is missing from a lot of these conversation that it’s time to talk about: the way women treat other women in this man’s world we live in. I work in politics, which is sometimes compared to a high school popularity contest. Fresh out of college, I used to think this was a reference to elections – you know, an actual popularity contest. But in my experience, this is more often than not the way men describe the way women interact with one another, especially in observation of one woman subtly trying to sabotage another woman.   The fact of the matter is, the patriarchy makes it tough for women to rise through the ranks and women have to work harder to earn and be recognized less. But it’s not just men making it difficult for women to rise; women are making it difficult for one another too.

There is no better time than 2016 — a year in which a woman is running to be President of the United States of America — to put a stop to Mean Girls. Women who are anything less than helpful to others rising through the ranks deserve the title of Mean Girls, as well as a share of the blame for holding us all back.

Without excusing the behavior of the Mean Girl, we have to acknowledge how easy it is to become one. Women struggle to succeed, encountering all kinds of unfair treatment because of their gender along the way. We’re paid less, we’re promoted less frequently, we’re forced to strike an impossible balance of being the boss without being bossy.   It makes sense then, that when a woman gets to a well-deserved place on the ladder, after all that climbing, she hesitates to reach back to pull other women along. Far more frequently than any of us should be proud of, women aren’t reaching back. Or worse, some women are actually kicking back with their stilettos to try to make sure no one climbs past them.

The practice of “climbing up, kicking down” is from the bygone era in which women were so often tokenized that there was only place for one of us at the top of the ladder. The world we live in today is better, though, and banding together to eliminate Mean Girl behavior we can make it even better for each other.   All of the books and panelists and conferences seem to agree: women aren’t going to succeed in a man’s world without helping other women. And yet, here we are. Every single woman I know has been the victim of another woman’s insecurity, jealousy or pettiness. Every woman I know – from leaders of organizations to elected officials to actresses, have been undercut in a professional context by another woman.

Career women not only need to talk more openly with one another about this problem, we also need to call out bad behavior when we see a woman undercut another woman. And we need to be honest with young women just starting their careers about the behavior to avoid and how they can more proactively help other women. We can start by observing the rule that my mother taught me at the age of three: if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t’ say anything at all. Let’s put an end to the practice of undercutting other women with what I call the Mean Girl Mixer.  Women are fierce at crafting the perfect Mean Girl Mixer: a compliment followed by what seems like a genuine warning. “She’s so great, really nice – although I hear she’s a really aggressive manager.” Putting a bug in anyone’s mind that a woman is is aggressive is a blacklisting move.  Stoking women’s insecurities and tapping into our fear is another favorite Mean Girl Mixer technique: “I absolutely love her. But she isn’t afraid to do anything to get what she wants, so stay on her good side!”   We’ve all done it. We’ve all had it done to us. Let’s call a truce and put a stop to it. Don’t engage in this behavior and don’t let other women do it either. The next time you hear a Mean Girl Mixer, call it out. Just like on public transportation: If you see something, say something!  If we want to combat sexism in the workplace, we can’t only focus on men. We all have to hold ourselves, as women, accountable too. Then, we can turn our attention back to the men!