“I don't shine if you don't shine”: why we should all do more to support other women at work

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Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. This week author, Emma Gannon,argues that - while it might not always be the easiest decision - supporting other women should be first and foremost on the feminist agenda.  

Feminist Emma Gannon says:

You could argue that the idea that labeling yourself a feminist means you must automatically support all women, kind of goes against the feminist ethos of not discriminating against or favoring someone solely based on their gender. In reality, it’s OK to think that some women are unpleasant or bang out of order in the way that we would think the same about some men. We may also think some women aren’t funny, just as some men aren’t.

It’s a fact of life: some people are just not going to be your cup of tea. End of.

But: a question that I’ve been asking myself recently is, do we have an obligation to try and help other women specifically, in a world where we are still often disregarded in many areas of society?

A special place in hell

In a keynote speech in 2006, Madeleine Albright famously said “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women.” Her quote quickly became a feminist catch phrase which she used again recently while campaigning for Hilary Clinton.

However, an ensuing backlash deemed it inappropriate for Albright to suggest that women should vote for Clinton simply because they – and she – are women. Albright swiftly rescinded her comment, saying in TIME magazine that she had used it in the “wrong context.”

But tearing Albright is ironic and disadvantageous, too.

Because women are still more vulnerable to public trashing than men. Ricky Gervais can entertain the entire Golden Globes auditorium with bad jokes about Jennifer Lawrence’s demand for equal pay: "Jennifer Lawrence made the news when she demanded equal pay for women in Hollywood and she received overwhelming support from people everywhere. There were marches on the street with nurses and factory workers saying, ‘How the hell can a 25-year-old live on $52 million?" - and people find it endearing or no big deal. But Amy Schumer makes rude jokes and people slap her with degrading labels and a rumour mill begins that she stole the jokes in the first place.

Build them up then tear them down

I first read about ‘trashing’ in an online article from Ms Magazine, written in 1976, called 'The Dark Side of Sisterhood'. I was obsessed with it while also being rather scared of it. There are countless examples of women getting built up and up and up with support: the ‘women of the month’ or the ‘flavour of the week’ and then down they go - getting bashed and crushed by the media back into their ‘place.’ We’ve seen this with most high profile women. Build them up, then tear them down.

We see it within our internet circles too; a recent viral piece trashing female wellness gurus, bloggers take down other bloggers (there is a whole hate forum decimated to blog bashing) and obviously only one hit of the Daily Mail reminds us that it doesn’t take much to make a woman feel humiliated in the most intimate of ways - with the majority of articles on the so-called ‘sidebar of shame’ trashing women, written by women.

In the workplace

In a recent issue of Lenny Letter, Lena interviews Sheryl Sandberg they talk about her new campaign “Together Women Can”. Following on from her bestselling book Lean In, Sandberg recently set up Lean In Circles which are small groups concentrating specifically on helping women in the workplace after realising that it’s very common for women to “look to their female peers for support.” She brings up the dilemma of women often seeing each other as competition: “when women first entered the workforce, there really was only going to be one woman allowed to sit at the table. But that is not the case today.” This implies that back in the day, there were less roles and you did actually have to “fight” for it, booting everyone out of the way.

A recent scientific study attests to this, suggesting that competitive work environments, traditionally aimed to foster the testosterone-fueled success of men, in fact holds women back – so unused are they to the idea of being pitted against one another.

But the truth is, while the path of 'individualism in the city' might appear easier than the altruism of helping fellow women up and onto the ladder, looking out for number one is not only weak and selfish, it's less likely to benefit you in the long run.

By deciding to help and boost a fellow woman we are ultimately helping ourselves. Ann Friedman’s Shine Theory, posits that instead of pushing out other women we see as competition, we should seek to surround ourselves with successful women - because "I don't shine if you don't shine." We should all try our best to practice it.

But most importantly, the simple act of helping and boosting other women makes you a better feminist.

In order to help push forward equality, we have to be generous. We have to make room for more of us. We have to stop treating it as “one seat at the table”. We have to help others get higher up on the ladder too so as a whole we benefit. Gone are the days where you “fight to the top” bashing all other “competition” out of the way.

Emma's book CTRL, ALT, DELETE How I Grew Up Online is out on Thursday 7 July. You can buy it here.

Send your feminist dilemmas to Ask a Feminist editor harriet.hall@stylist.co.uk and she'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.