Why Women Don’t Always Support Other Women

A few months back I was a guest on a morning talk show. “Dr Cannold,” one of the hosts asked, “Why is it that older women often don’t support younger ones?”

I cleared my throat but was cut short. We were out of time. Later, however, my inbox and Twitter feed confirmed what I already knew. Women are desperately interested in the answer to this question and a related one, “Why do women join anti-women causes?”

Here are my thoughts.

Older women can be nasty to younger women because they’re jealous. Youth equates to fertility and sometimes to beauty. In a man’s world both confer power. Never mind that younger women may be unaware of this power or unwilling to use it (often and ironically because they have listened when their female elders advised against it). The bald facts are that younger women have power that the uncompromising gavel of time has pronounced inaccessible to older women. In a world that limits women’s access to other routes of influence over their own destiny, this loss hurts.

Older women can be less willing mentors than older men. Take a look around and the reasons for this become clear. To give those scrambling up behind you a helping hand, you need to be well ahead of them and have a firm grip. But the higher up you go in the media, government, entertainment or corporate worlds, the fewer women you’ll find. In 2010, for example, 2.5 per cent of ASX 200 chairmen and 3 per cent of chief executives were women. Just 30 per cent of parliamentarians are female and far fewer of these have safe seats or ministerial posts.

Some women who have managed to scrape their way to the top don’t feel secure enough for generosity. They’ve done the sums and, in contrast to their male counterparts, they know they’re competing with junior women for the scarce, even token, spots allocated for females.

The generation gap is not the only one that divides women. What about women-led social movements with anti-women agendas? Whether it’s fundamentalist religious movements striving to return pregnant and economically dependent women to the home, or political parties dedicated to cutting funding to child care and food aid for the children of the mostly female poor, women can be well-represented among those driving and supporting laws that deny their own sex autonomy and dignity.

Perhaps they are in denial. To work towards advancing the interests of her sex, a woman must admit that sexism exists and is crimping her own life chances. Some women are loath to do this, especially when the only sensible corrective is to steal time from the pursuit of her personal ambitions to assume the gargantuan task of changing the world.

While not admirable, I can understand the woman who wishes so hard that she had the freedom to simply get on with living her life in the same way she can see her male siblings and friends doing that she convinces herself that she does.

As a repentant young woman recently explained of her former pro-life stance, “Because I was saving myself for marriage … I knew that I would … never be a murderer like those sluts.” Insisting one is different, special and more virtuous than other women – and so not in need of the social salves they seek – is the act of a fragile ego. But it also speaks poignant volumes about the yearning all humans have to duck obstacles of bias and discrimination and gain a respected place in society on their own steam.

Publication history

When women can't afford to care about each other  Sydney Sun-Herald