When I was a kid, I loved playing with both boys and girls. In my sweet innocent eyes, we were all the same. And then came fifth grade. And sixth grade. And eventually high school. By that time I had learned to steer clear of groups of girls. I preferred and loved to have friends who could hang out and talk one-on-one, away from group influence. Groups of girls, with their judgement, secrecy, jealousy, and seemingly automatic impulse to compete all the time made me nervous.
From time to time, in hopes of belonging, I found myself getting sucked in and played along. When I noticed myself turning into someone I disliked, I returned back to smaller one-on-one friendships. As an introvert, those came more naturally to me anyway. I had never liked parties, and I began to see myself as more of an outsider, someone who floated between groups or was friends with one or two individuals within groups. In college, you wouldn’t catch me dead near a sorority.
Joyce Benenson, a researcher at Emmanuel College in Boston, discusses 3 characteristics of competition unique to women:
- Women use passive aggression rather than physical confrontation. Ex: Your coworker’s body language toward you is off. She won’t make eye contact and is giving short, clipped answers but you have no idea what's wrong.
- Women will insist on equality and uniformity to keep others from outshining them. Ex: The women in your office have been pushing to make the company shirts required uniform because one co-worker has a wonderful sense of style.
- Women guard against potential competitors by socially excluding them. Ex: One of the few women on the team accidentally-on-purpose forgets to invite another new, attractive woman to join for lunch.
Notice how all these characteristics are driven by fear?
I actually had to leave the country before I was able to witness an example of a healthy group of women. I was in my twenties, and had met a group of sex workers in India who ate together, travelled together, and looked over each other’s children. Sure, there was gossip here and there, but it was mostly this overwhelming sense of caring for each other. In some ways, despite having so little, these women were supported in a culture that looked at the world with a perspective of abundance as opposed to one of scarcity. They were economically disadvantaged and oppressed, but they focused on what they had: each other.
In Hindi, it’s commonplace to add the word “didi” (sister) to the end of someone’s name. I was Maria-didi – Maria-sister. Language is so powerful; it actually shapes the world. By calling someone else your sister, you’re truly more likely to view them that way.
I have to be honest, as I don’t like to sugar coat things and want to honor my purpose as a Truth-speaker: I’m still healing my relationships with other women, and I have not figured it out. I have sticky female friendships and I still get triggered by other women. And very often, I anticipate that other women will be triggered by me. I’m pleasantly surprised when I feel the love and support of another woman who genuinely wants me to shine my brightest. My knee-jerk reaction is, “Really? It doesn’t bother you?”
For example, the recent release of my podcast. I was amazed by one woman who was so energetically supportive of it, telling me to keep going and that she was so genuinely happy for me. I was so touched! But my amazement forced me to consider what I’d been anticipating… silent jealousy, perhaps? That wasn’t the case at all, and it punctuated a little hole in my default expectation.
Clinical psychologist Noam Shpancer published an article I recommend, Feminine Foes: New Science Explores Female Competition. Shpancer outlines several fascinating studies that shed light on some of the main factors behind women’s tendency to judge and condemn one another.
Many such studies point to the evolutionary drive for women to compete for man’s favor (access to protection, procreation, etc.). But feminist psychology argues that female competition is driven more by social mechanisms than biological imperatives. Because we are born into a male-dominated society, we internalize the male perspective (“male gaze”) and adopt it as our own, leading us to consider being prized/valued by men as the ultimate source of worth and identity.
In this sense, women are conditioned to see each other as the problem, when in reality, it is the male-based establishment affecting our perceptions of self and other women.
I know so deeply that real, no-bullshit sisterhood is vital. I have facilitated dozens of women’s circles, allowing women to be held in a space of non-judgment and love. The transformations are often very deep – deeper levels than can sometimes be accessed with private experiences.
We all have our dark, shameful places as women. But to be held in sisterhood and truly seen and loved for who we are is such a blessing. All it requires is a safe container, and a willingness to be open and compassionate towards yourself and others.
If you feel scared by the prospect, that may just be your subconscious reacting to something it is eager to experience. Regardless, I assure you it isn’t scary. I have started a circle in San Francisco with women who work in male-dominated industries, who have never been part of a women’s group before! It’s working. The transformation, energy, and positivity it can give your life is profound. The feeling of relatedness, acceptance, and accountability is amazing.
If you’re curious and would like to meet other like-minded women, begin to slowly repair your relationship to women, and explore your own holistic leadership in a safe space, reply and let me know a bit more about you, as there are 1-2 spots available.