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?