Catfights: Are Women Their Own Worst Enemies?

By Samantha Chang

God forbid you be an ugly girl. Of course, too pretty is also your doom,
’cause everyone harbors a secret hatred for the prettiest girl in the room.
—Ani DiFranco

pic1Ever since women stepped into the workplace several decades ago, there’s been a major shift in how society defines what it means to be a woman. Back in the day, a woman’s primary source of status and identity came from the man she attached herself to.

Because a woman’s status rose in correlation to the wealth and power possessed by her husband, it made sense that beauty, charm and being born into the “right” family mattered more than a woman’s intelligence and competence. And if you were a single woman, forget it: You were persona non grata, a pathetic figure to be pitied and shunned.

Now, however, the rules have changed so that women continue to compete on their old turfs over looks, status and men, but also in new arenas such as professional and financial success. As much as we’d like to proclaim solidarity and sisterhood, the fact is, these new avenues have only intensified the competition among women. But because women are socialized to play nice and not be overtly aggressive, the game-playing between women usually involves back-stabbing and manipulation over direct confrontation.

A Rock and a Hard Place

Shockingly, some 95% of women felt undermined at some point in their careers by other women, according to a recent survey by the American Management Association. Women do this by resorting to petty behavior such as spreading gossip or shunning someone because we’re conditioned to view each other as adversaries, according to Leora Tanenbaum, author of Catfight: Rivalries among Women—from Diets to Dating, from the Boardroom to the Delivery Room.

Sadly, this adversarial relationship only serves to keep women lagging behind men in the workplace, according to Tanenbaum. “Competition between women serves only the status quo,” she writes. “And the status quo keeps us from gaining more power over our lives, our work and our relationships.”

pic2The flip side is that if women decided to act “like men,” toss the Nice Girl veneer and compete openly in the workplace the way men do, they risk being judged by both men and women as “unfeminine” and “overly aggressive,” so women are caught between a rock and a hard place in choosing between sneaky sabotage and open warfare.

More Things to Fight Over

Interestingly, despite the perception (and reality) that women are nurturing, skewed societal expectations can overtake even the best of us. Tanenbaum, who proudly considers herself a feminist, conceded this point. “I am committed to the idea that every woman should be given the opportunity to succeed in any endeavor she chooses,” Tanenbaum has said. “And yet, there is also a part of me that feels reassured if another woman stumbles…When I looked around, I discovered that this problem affects nearly every American woman.”

So what’s at the root of this unhealthy rivalry? According to Tanenbaum, we feel competitive because of our confused place in society. In fact, femininity and competition go hand in hand, she says. ”By definition, the female role is something she ‘wins’ at,” Tanenbaum has said. We win by marrying a wealthier man, being more attractive than the next woman and having more successful children.

And this competition has now spread to the office, where women—especially those in male-dominated professions—feel they have to be better than other women in order to validate their position as the token woman in a man’s world.

Why Women Hate Working for Other Women

As a result of all this passive aggression, many women executives say their female assistants hold them in less esteem and believe there’s more status in working for a man, according to Shere Hite, author of The Hite Report on Women Loving Women.

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