Senator Madeline Albright , while introducing Hilary Clinton as the Democratic Presidential candidate said,” There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”. We all believe that women should and would support other women.
However, we have few role models or stories to bolster this idea. The stories we tell create our beliefs and mindsets and get perpetuated in reality. If we go back to the fables we grew up with, we find very few examples of women supporting other women. Women have always been portrayed in relation to the men in their lives ; their relationships with other women are inconsequential or marred by conflict. Arjuna had Krishna to guide him, Draupadi had no woman to support her through her ordeal. The women who could, a Kunti or Gandhari did nothing. A Kaikeyi is jealous of Kaushalya, Shurpanaka resents Seeta and most women in other stories have been reduced to minor characters.
Even these days, we hardly see women mentors in popular fiction or movies. Take the Star Wars Franchise- Luke Skywalker is mentored by Obi Wan and he in turn becomes mentor to the girl Rey in the latest release. Gandalf mentors young Bilbo and later Frodo in their adventures in The Lord of the Rings series. Television series too pair up the older wiser male with a younger male or younger female- Think Harvey and Mike in Suits, Walter and Jesse of Breaking Bad or even Sherlock Holmes and his protégé Joan Watson in Elementary where he mentors her to become a detective. The Intern addresses the ageist bias but it is still the older wiser male who counsels the young bright female. While we come across tough women who are great role models or the occasional heartwarming tale of female friendship, there are few examples of women who have mentored or actively helped other women succeed.
Women have been often portrayed as insecure or overbearing in their role as leaders or bosses. In The Devil wears Prada or Working Girl, the female boss is a megalomaniacal evil witch whose role is to make life miserable for her female underlings. Outside the office, the older woman is the evil mother-in-law of the saas bahu serials whose role is to make life miserable for her daughters-in-law. Even off screen, we rarely hear of a female politician or corporate leaders picking another woman to succeed her.
Apart from the prevalent culture of patriarchy and unimaginative writing, there could be many reasons for this.
Psychologists have identified the Queen Bee syndrome as one of the reasons why women don’t want to see another woman succeed. There is only one queen in the hive and she does not like competition. Powerful women have a tendency to belittle or thwart the ambitions of other women they see as a threat. The jury is still divided on the veracity of this theory since there are very few women in high positions and hardly a wide pool of women candidates to choose from for any leadership position.
Evolution may again play a part. Men have always formed close knit groups as they hunted and foraged together but child rearing was usually a single woman operation. Polygamy was common and the women needed to compete for the attention of the alpha male. A younger and more attractive women was obviously a threat to the erstwhile chief wife.
Sometimes, it could be just a numbers game. There are very few women in leadership positions so it is unlikely for all the younger women out there to get a female mentor. The ratios are unfavourable.
Often, the women who have reached senior positions are too busy with their role, battling the opposition, juggling family responsibilities, trying to have it all to prioritize mentoring. They are so squeezed for time and energy that there is nothing left to share with other women.
Sometimes, it is a mindset issue. A senior woman leader I spoke to shared that she had a very tough time climbing the corporate ladder; she received no special perks for being a woman. So, why should she go out of her way to support other women? Let them also struggle and survive. What doesn’t kill them will make them stronger.
Many younger women have a trust deficit when it comes to other women. Perhaps, perpetuated by the stories and movies, there is a suspicion that women will bitch, backbite and manipulate each other to get to the top. Men, on the other hand, are supposed to be more transparent and straightforward. Yes, sexual harassment is a risk but at least they are not sly two- faced creatures who will likely stab you in the back.
These days, we hear a lot of voices, all positive, about the need for women to support each other. Sheryl Sandberg advocates Lean In support circles for circles, Indra Nooyi mentions this need in her conversations and everyone agrees that women benefit greatly from having women mentors. I just came across a research done by the University of Massachusetts which showed that women students in STEM who had female mentors were less likely to drop out of college or change their field of study. They mentioned greater connection and belongingness with a woman mentor. A 2015 study by Columbia Business school of 1500 American companies showed that when a woman had been appointed to senior executive, more women were likely to be appointed to senior positions. There are several organizations like the Cherie Blair Foundation and BD Foundation that have mentoring programs for women.
What we need to see are more success stories and positive examples of women supporting women. Writers need to create stories around strong women who mentor other young women. While Robert Redford was lovely as the avuncular Ben Whittaker, imagine a Susan Sarandon mentoring the young Jules in The Intern. Or the fabulous Jessica Pearson from Suits mentoring young Rachel Zane to become a senior partner!
Women should step forward to share how another woman helped them succeed. I have seen that mentoring is not only a noble act of passing on wisdom and providing guidance, but an immensely fulfilling process. If every successful woman can pick one other woman to coach, guide and mentor, it would be a mutually beneficial arrangement.
This article first appeared on shethepeople.tv here.