Busting the pull her down myth

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A YOUNG woman recently posted a tweet posing the question: Are women supportive of each other? And in which instances are they not supportive?

Having heard the myth of the “pull her down” syndrome too many times to count, I had to give her questions a lot of thought, and I concluded that actually women are supportive of one another.

I thought about the person who first showed me how fabulous it could be to be a woman, how plentiful the options could be if I got a decent education, and how important it was to use my energies productively. This person was a woman — my mother.

The person who made my first big break possible; who facilitated the leap from a clerical position to a managerial one; who first believed in my potential even though I didn’t have a track record to support it — was a woman.

The high flying executive who first suggested I could sit on the board of a listed company; the experienced artist who insisted I use my creativity to start a design business; the Fortune 500 vice-president who told me never to doubt myself ever; the successful young trailblazer who texts me regularly and visits me every couple of months to affirm and encourage me – all of these characters are women! Surely if this is true for me it is true for other women also? When I replied Yvonne Mwende’s tweet in the affirmative, the number of retweets I got assured me that this must be the case.

Having said that, I have also had opportunity, support and encouragement from many male figures in my life.
They have given me almost exactly the same kind of support I got from women — with the possible exception of visiting me regularly to affirm and encourage me!

In the same vein there have been women who have discouraged me, who have impeded my progress professionally, and have given me a hard time socially.

But they are far fewer in number than those who have helped me.

Similarly there have been men who have stunted my growth, trivialised my ambitions and denied me opportunities.

I recall one particular job interview with a male MD where I was quizzed at length about my personal life, only to be told later that I couldn’t have the job because I was engaged, and it was therefore “obvious” that I would immediately get married and have children, which would be disruptive to the business.

No one would dare say that now of course, because back then we did not know that this was gender discrimination of the highest order and against the law to boot. But it doesn’t mean such decisions are no longer made.

Incidentally it was another six years before I produced the offspring that this man was so worried about, so his assumptions were seriously inaccurate.

I really believe that many observers view any criticism of a woman by a woman as an opportunity to whip out the “pulling her down” car. But when a man criticises another man, nobody says, “You see, men can’t work together, they are always pulling each other down!”

They simply take the criticism at face value, for what it is – one human being’s opinion about the actions of another. It doesn’t become a national crisis. Perhaps the language that women use is more colourful; or perhaps they are more animated when they speak. Perhaps they express themselves more emotionally than men.

But this is true whether they are criticising or praising; it is true whether they are speaking of men or of women. It should therefore never be used as an indication that they do not or cannot appreciate the achievements of other women.

I wonder whether proponents of the “pull her down” myth really want us to promote women regardless of merit or potential? Do they want us to only have gentle and kind words that soothe and inspire?

Would it be fair on women if all women only spoke positively to and about each other?

Where would the growth be in that? Where would the authenticity sit? Where would the learning come from?

South African Reserve Bank governor Gill Markus is said to have made the important observation that when women have conversations they focus on the 5% of what is not working in their lives, whereas men are more likely to focus on what is working. In my view it in such conversations that ideas like the “pull her down” syndrome are incubated and fed.

Yes, there may be people who are jealous of your success, yes, there maybe those who do not want you to succeed, yes there may even be those who want to sleep with your husband – but does that constitute more than 5% of your experience with women?

When I look at the progress that women have made over the years, and that they continue to make into the future, I cannot bring myself to believe that it is men alone who have made it happen.

It has been driven largely by women, supporting other women and making opportunities available to each other — as they have done in the past, and as they continue to do.