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Opinion Do women really support other women when it counts?

On International Women’s Day, Niamh O’Reilly asks if women are truly supporting one another.


TYPE IN THE term #WomenSupportingWomen on Instagram and you’ll get upward of 22 million results on any given day.

Today being International Women’s Day however, one assumes those results would be much higher. An impressive scroll of inspirational quotes about queens fixing each other’s crowns and picture-perfect images of groups of women will generally follow. It would be easy to assume then that female solidarity in this post #MeToo era is in fine fettle. Hashtags are great, but are women really supporting each other when it counts or is it more about the perception of support in this era of hashtag feminism?

Most women will be lucky to have a few core females in their lives who are their “ride or dies.” The women who would lay down in traffic for them and support them to the hilt. Be they relatives, friends, or even women you speak to but once a year, these are the ones who would be at the door at a moment’s notice with a bottle of vodka or a sledgehammer, (no questions asked!), if either were required. In my personal life, I’ve been lucky to have a few close female supporters who would cheer me on even if I was competing in the world finals of toddler bum wiping, which to be fair I could ace at this stage. So even if it’s just one individual, the importance of having another supportive female in your life can be huge.

Supporting other women

The converse is also true. Situations where women could support each other, but choose not to, can be devastating. For many, the workplace is still a flashpoint for this. None of us enter a job expecting other women to hold our hands or bake us cookies, based on our gender, but female solidarity in the workplace can go a long way to reducing gender inequality. Sticking up for your female colleagues in the face of such inequality is a cornerstone of progress.

Katie Doyle founder of Mentor Her, an organisation which matches female mentors with mentees, believes the majority of women in business do have each other’s backs. “We find there’s a huge amount of women out there who want to help, but we also find women have a hard time asking for help,” she explains.

“Women can lack the confidence to reach out.” The phenomenon illustrates the extra pressures women in business, especially entrepreneurs, can feel. Seeking help could be seen as a weakness and a fear of being judged more harshly because of your gender. “Men are more likely to have that confidence to reach out,” believes Katie. “Women tend to doubt themselves more. We assume people are judging us when everyone else is actually just concerned with their own problems. I think sometimes women can be in their own heads about things.”

In my professional career, I’ve been lucky to have some terrific mentors who left a lasting impression on me. I believe the best mentors in life are those who are honest with you; tough when needed, but always fair and ultimately have a belief in your ability and value. For me, these have been both male and female. However, I’ve also felt as though I’ve also experienced a disproportionate number of negative behaviours from women in higher up positions. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky. Maybe gender had nothing to do with it and maybe these were just toxic people. Or maybe there’s something more going on.

Jostling for a seat

Historically, female rivalry in the workplace was magnified by the idea that there was only one seat at the table for a woman. When workplace inequality was rife, women often felt they had to act like men in order to get ahead and stay there. But as many found out, it was a minefield laden with traps.

When females in business tried to be assertive, they were labelled as aggressive or bitchy. If they weren’t assertive enough, opportunities often passed them by.

Today the scales are more balanced, but it’s still not equal. According to the CSO’s most recent figures, 25 per cent of Boards of Directors in Ireland were female. Female Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) increased to 19 per cent and seven in 10 Senior Executives in Ireland in 2023 were male.

seriouswomanbossscoldingemployeesforbadresultsordiscussing Shutterstock / fizkes Shutterstock / fizkes / fizkes

Patterns of behaviour tied to gender inequality can persist. The unfortunately named Queen Bee syndrome is an often-quoted phenomenon. Coined by Carol Tavris in the early 1970s, it wasn’t until the 2004 study by Naomi Ellemers et al., that the term entered pop culture. It found that women in high-ranking positions often treat their lower down female colleagues differently to their male counterparts simply based on their gender, rather than their actual performance.

The study was repeated in 2020 and the findings remained the same. Interestingly, it found that the phenomenon was a reaction to gender inequality and not the cause. Getting rid of persistent inequality and putting in more practical supports for women would go a long way.

Sonia Harris Pope, founder of Harris PR understands this better than most. “Over the years, I’ve worked in environments that don’t understand, respect or trust women, (most of them run by women, it must be said). However, based on my experiences over the last 15 years running my agency, I’ve tried to harness all of those learnings and create a much more supportive and inclusive culture for women, especially mums.” Sonia goes to great lengths to provide common sense initiatives that make women and mums feel supported and valued in the workplace, which results in a more equal environment.

Global conversations

Away from the traditional ideals of the workplace, the online world is one where we’ve seen female empowerment and sisterhood soar. Bringing women closer together for common goals has been seismic. The #MeToo movement was an example of how hashtags can be used to bring about real world change. We’ve had an explosion of female influencers garner huge followings of other women around everything from motherhood, wellness, business, and entrepreneurship. There’s a sense of community, finding your tribe and often unity.

january-20-2018-san-francisco-ca-usa-womens-march-protesters-metoo-and-timesup-slogans-written-on-a-sign-at-the-rally-held-in-san-francisco The MeToo movement. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

I’ve forged plenty of firm friendships with women I’ve never even met in the flesh, but count them as some of my most trusted confidants. In #WomenSupportingWomen, I’ve found support and sisterhood, but I’ve also seen a darker side.

Trolling, nasty comments and gossip forums are at times the breathing underbelly of these positive hashtags. It sometimes feels as though queens might post about fixing other queens’ crowns, but then go off and bitch about them on an online forum. Threads in some of these infamous gossip sites read like a page from Mean Girls’ “burn book.”

These forums claim to exist to hold influencers to account but often cross the line into abuse. There’s a feeling that this silent undercurrent of tearing down other women online is not entirely uncommon. Anyone who’s ever been a member of a mum and baby Facebook Group, for example, will likely have witnessed this first hand. In the main, they are helpful supportive places, but they can turn very, very nasty in a heartbeat. Mums asking about baby formula, breastfeeding and weaning, often end up getting abused by the very women they were hoping would support them.

the-plate-dont-feed-the-trolls-in-forest-in-norway Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

To be clear, trolling is not a woman-only issue. Many diverse online groups regularly descend into the battle of keyboard warriors. There seems to be something inherently polarising about putting a screen between people that gives rise to trolling no matter what your gender.

Back in the real world, going through a divorce or separation is one such time when you’d assume women would have each other’s backs. It’s the time for your “ride or dies” to come in and support you. I had always believed this was the case, however, in researching this piece and chatting with other women, what came up again and again was the lack of support some women are feeling at times like this. In fact, many revealed they found themselves more or less cut off from their female friends during a separation.

One said – “I’ve found after getting divorced that women can often view me as a threat. Women I felt close to, now keep me at distance,” she explained. “I have been intentionally not invited to events and weekends away. Despite now being in a steady loving relationship, and not having any interest in any other men, I can sense a protective side eye when I am in day-to-day situations. In the school yard picking up kids, at a dinner with friends, I feel as though some women don’t look at me as an ally. It’s horrible.”

Is the support real?

So do women really support one another when it counts? I think if you ask most women the answer is a resounding yes, but our individual stories are often a lot more nuanced. Support must involve action when it counts, rather than just using a simple hashtag.

While we can look to factors like the patriarchy and misogyny for allowing certain conditions to arise, we also have to look at ourselves. Myself included and it would be disingenuous of me not to face up to the times when I fell short. When I outlined my own experiences of being on the receiving end of unacceptable behaviour from a female boss very early in my working career, I omitted my own failings. During the same period, I stayed silent while the same female in power behaved unacceptably to another one of my colleagues. It’s something that still bothers me to this day and while I can blame fear, a lack of a support system or this woman’s systemic bullying behaviour towards her female subordinates, there’s no doubt that I must take accountability for my actions. However, if it happened now, 20 years later, I know I’d react completely differently and have the confidence to stand up and speak out.

Roisin Ni Chleirigh, of Confident Women Ireland agrees. “It’s time we start taking personal responsibility for how we treat other women and stop blaming other factors. We need to claim our spaces, our values and respect other women’s value. We should also call out other women who aren’t supporting other women, but do it respectfully, with dignity and integrity when we do it.”

So perhaps this International Women’s Day, instead of just using a hashtag, we could try to find additional, tangible ways to support each other. Check in on that friend you haven’t spoken to in ages, invite your separated friend to a girls’ catch up. Give another woman in business a chance to get her foot in the door or offer your advice or give your time to a startup female entrepreneur. Place an order with that local, female run small business and find ways to use your influence for good.

Niamh O’Reilly is a freelance writer and wrangler of two small boys, who is winging her way through motherhood, her forties and her eyeliner.

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