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The Politics of the Playground – What Mothers Need to Teach their Daughters

There’s one particular theme that has recurred in my work with women in leadership that I have resisted and challenged for years. And this is the complaint – reinforced by countless women – that the women they encounter in organisations are far less supportive than their male colleagues.

Surely we can’t generalise about more than 50% of the world’s population? Surely there are good women and bad women in the same way that there are bad and good men? And is it reasonable to expect unconditional support from a sisterhood just because we belong to the same gender?

Even the editor of a South African glossy magazine who is a role model for many young working women, wrote in a recent editorial that “more men than women have had an empowering impact on my career.” And to be frank, I couldn’t help feeling she’d let the team down with her comment.

Many men I have spoken to assure me that women tend to romanticise the ease of male relationships. “Do you really think we’re part of a supportive congenial network and that you are the only ones who suffer with politics?” they counter. The only advantage they seem to share is that they don’t expect a brotherhood of loyalty. They know that politics is part of organisational life and that’s that.

But my reservations aside there are just too many women referring to the “pull-her-down” (PHD) syndrome as one of the main challenges facing women in organisations for me to continue dismissing it as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And despite my intellectual discomfort with sweeping generalisations, I haven’t forgotten the “mean girl” dynamics I had to contend with at primary school. And now that it’s my own daughter’s turn to navigate the pre-teen years, I watch her struggle with the same issues I hoped that I had left behind me forever.

It seems that there is no girl or woman who isn’t familiar with the patterns of inclusion and exclusion that leave us hurting and our mothers helpless. So what is it? Does it exist? Why does it exist?

Feminist author Elizabeth Debold suggests that the roots of this behaviour go back further than we might imagine.
“Research on female primates suggest that many of our evolutionary foresisters spend their time grooming others to avoid being picked on and holding grudges against each other that make reconciliation impossible, all to gain an advantage in sexual reproduction” she explains

But she also believes it’s possible for us to grapple with our primitive drive to compete with each other so that we can realise a higher potential. (Which I can’t help thinking is a human opportunity rather than a particularly female one)
The challenge is that there is very little advice on what to do and how to behave in a way that builds resilience and compassion at the same time. Usually the values we encourage at the dinner table are very different to the ones that are celebrated on the playground.

So what can we do to help our girls develop a more positive way of relating to each other?

The Mother/Daughter Dialogues is a project about developing some guidelines rather than leaving each generation to struggle it out for themselves. Please contact me if you have any ideas! We’ll be hosting conversations for women of all ages to share the lessons they’ve learned over the years so please be in touch if you’d like to participate. After all if we aren’t taught what it means to be a good friend on the playground, how can we expect a leg-up a few years later in the even fiercer battleground that is the workplace?

warm regards

Debby Edelstein

6 Responses to QLC Journal: October 2010

  1. Adele Pillay says:

    Morning Debby I believe that this is an important issue. Thank you Debby for writing it about it that in itself is liberating. I have come to learn (42 years old) that the most important thing in working with women, especially bosses is to make a meeting with her and say-this is how I feel. Be clear about what you want to say and be professional. Because we relate to each other so easily we cross between personal and professional lines and sometimes as employees we become too familiar with our bosses and that could impact on productivity and the level of respect for her as our superior. So the guidelines would look like this a) Approach her and request a meeting in private b) say exactly how you feel-if you underplay this you will walk away feeling hard-done by. Your homework is to articulate WHAT it is you are feeling. b) What is my role in this team? -How she defines you could be very different from where you see yourself c) Support-do you and don’t you feel supported and what will improve it d) Listen to feedback about yourself. As women we have strong emotions. Recurring emotions stem from an issue that we are not tending to. Voice It! Communication is an important part of our relationships and trust is essential. So in order to build another we first have to feel validated by our superiors. Thank you Adele Pillay 0746100505

  2. Thanks for this comment Adele. The issue of finding our voices and having the courage to speak up is one that came up a lot during our conference last week!

  3. valerie says:

    Please inform me of all the conferences that youi have . I would love to attend for development purposes.

  4. Lai Mccargo says:

    Excellent article and easy to understand explanation. How do I go about getting permission to post part of the article in my upcoming news letter? Giving proper credit to you the author and link to the site would not be a problem.

  5. Thanks for an insightful article. I agree this is a very important issue. I would like to offer some thoughts on this subject, which is something I feel passionate about. Mothers can do so much to help their daughters ‘navigate’ the waters of life.

    One area I feel we really need to bring awareness to is how we name things. So often we hear people speaking about a dog, a bird, a cat, whatever… as ‘he’. for example, “Look at the fish. Do you think he’s hungry?” Ever notice in many of today’s cartoon movies like “Finding Nemo” not to mention many, many others – how MOST of the characters are all male?! I was astounded in “Finding Nemo” to note that every one of the hundreds of seagulls was male. Every one but two characters in the movie – was male. what does this say to our girls? is it any wonder girls and women suffer from self-esteem issues?

    I think this is especially damaging to girls as they grow up in a world that doesn’t apparently recognise their existence, but “implies” their existence. We might like to think that ‘he’ sometimes means “he” and sometimes means “he or she” and that this is “OK” I feel that is kidding ourselves. Girls and women deserve to be acknowledged in everyday speech and the media, and I think that mothers can do a lot for their daughters by encouraging and explaining to sons, daughters, spouse, friends – to be aware of their speech and to use inclusive speech wherever possible.

  6. great comment thanks Loraine! i’ve been pleased to see that some of the children’s movies are trying harder to break stereotypes when they profile heroes – but agree that we have a long way to go. I think it’s a great topic to explore in another post..