Business: women tear each other apart! Why is that no longer true
They bite each other away! Successful women in particular are often said to trip each other up. Why the myth of mare biting is no longer true – and what the new EU directive on management positions has to do with it.
By Miriam Trunk
A colleague, only a few years older than me, was promoted to a senior management position at about the same time as me. We were often compared: The two Power Ladies! We could have been Hanni and Nanni. But it just didn’t click between us. Not even when we met for dinner and at least I seriously tried. I found her boring, she found me annoying. We didn’t have the makings of a friendship.
Women in the workplace: “The worst opponents among themselves”
So far, so commonplace. What happened between us, however, was that we looked at each other more critically with every professional step that the other made. We blasphemed about each other, what the stuff held. When I successfully completed a project, she claimed in her department that I hadn’t done it myself. If she started a new initiative, I badmouthed her. At some point I noticed how much fun our male colleagues had that we didn’t like each other: “You guys bite each other off!” I heard. “Women are each other’s worst opponents!”
Like and dislike, ability and inability, like all other traits, are normally distributed: no matter what gender a person identifies with, we may or may not click with them. And yet many tell the story of the mare biting, of the female CEOs who only want men on their boards. The bosses who judge their employees more sharply. The boys-girls who laugh at misogynistic jokes and gossip about other women.
To research my book “Things I would have liked to know at the beginning of my career: why not everyone has the same opportunities in professional life and how we still assert ourselves”, I spoke to 15 women who made it to the top in their field have: Whether on the board of a corporation, as entrepreneurs, investors, in the cultural scene or in politics. They all confirmed to me that women’s competition exists – but it’s not nearly as widespread as people like to suggest. And above all: it is dying out more and more.
The phenomenon is called “internalized oppression”: women internalize the rules of a male-dominated working world so much that they use them against other women. The current world of work is built by men for men – the white man is the A4 sheet of paper in the world of work, male behavior is the norm. This is also due to the fact that, historically, women have only been part of this working world for the blink of an eye: around 10,000 years ago, the concept of ownership and thus gainful employment began with agriculture. Since 1977, women have been allowed to work without a man’s permission. Even in the German Empire, a little over 100 years ago, there was teacher celibacy: women had to decide whether they wanted to work as a teacher or have a family.
So the mechanisms are very deep in the DNA of our working world. It was less than 20 years ago that Karin Dorrepaal from the Netherlands became the first woman to join a DAX board in 2004. The first generation of women in particular, who applied for positions that were previously reserved exclusively for men, knew: There is at most one seat at the table for someone who is different.
And there’s another reason that makes the image of successful women at each other’s throats so tricky: Because we learn from childhood that there are really only three types of relationships for women. In the first they are best friends – Hanni and Nanni, Bibi and Tina – nothing can separate them. In the second they are the only ones – one Hermione, Smurfette, Gabi in “TKKG” – and join the boys. And in the third they are enemies: the evil stepmother, the women who fight for the man. Best friends, bitter enemies, alone among boys: there is little in between. And there are generally fewer role models for girls: in 2007, a study by the University of Rostock examined almost three thousand children’s programs from popular broadcasters. Almost three quarters of the protagonists were male, even in the case of fantasy plants it was 88 percent. The same applies to adult films: Even if a woman is the main character, she has a maximum of half the speaking part. So girls see: There are few places that we have to split into.
New law should help
A new law eliminates exactly that: There can’t just be more than one, there has to be. At the turn of the year 2022 to 2023, the EU Management Positions Directive came into force, which the Bundestag also approved in February. By 2026, 40 percent of board members and 33 percent of supervisory and executive boards of listed companies in the EU must be women. Women no longer have to fight for “that one” chair at the table. They no longer have to pretend to be the white Din A4 sheet, the standard. Because of the new legislation, they will no longer be culturally outnumbered in the medium term: the world of work can change.
And a second change stands in the way of internalized oppression, as I realized in the interviews for my book: The zeitgeist has changed, and at a faster pace than ever before. Sexist comments and misogynist jokes are less accepted than they were five years ago. Not only through movements like MeToo, but also through the realization that there are structural problems that prevent equal opportunities in the world of work. Above all, managers with daughters state that they want to do more for equal opportunities: Because they themselves feel the frustration when it is clear before birth how likely a person is to have a career. And values such as diversity and fairness will continue to gain momentum in the future: Especially in the Z and Alpha generations, more and more people are saying that these values not only influence purchasing decisions, but also the choice of employer.
So the calculation is very simple. When there are more seats for women at executive tables, the urge to defend one is gone. And then the culture changes: the white Din A4 sheet becomes different sizes, colors and shapes. The structural problem underlying internalized oppression disappears. Patterns of thought and fears such as: “The younger, more beautiful woman is my competition” – decrease. Women can work together without being best friends or bitter enemies. They also build powerful networks in which they pull each other up – this can already be observed today.
Will there still be women who don’t like each other? Yes! Will it affect the world of work? No. Because the structural problem of internalized oppression is on the retreat – and equal opportunities for all people are on the way forward.