Women v. Women

Bethany McLean, Linkedin
Zia Soleil | Getty Images

Earlier this fall, I was conducting a bunch of interviews at a conference. After I finished one perfectly pleasant interview, the person I was interviewing, who is a prominent business leader, turned to me and said, "You are such a Stepford Wife." Shocked, I responded, "Well, I can assure you no one has ever said that about me before!"

The person, unfazed, continued to the audience and crew, "She's really good in bed. All women who are like that on the surface are." I totally lack the superpower ability to deliver the perfect zinger, and I felt like it would make things worse if I made a fuss, and frankly, I didn't know what to do. So I tried to laugh it off. The business leader walked away, shouting back to everyone, "Use protection!"

This person wasn't a man. It was a woman who, for whatever reason, wanted to humiliate me.

More from Bethany McLean:
In praise of being unproductive
If I were 22: Focus on being interested, not interesting
My Goldman Sachs post-traumatic stress disorder (and why I'm grateful)

A month or so before this event, I was at a high profile, glitzy conference. I'm never comfortable at such events. As an introvert, I don't schmooze naturally, and I always feel like the proverbial sore thumb. But this time, a very senior woman who works for a major bank was seated across from me at dinner. Both during dinner and cocktails afterwards, she made a point of introducing me as a wonderful journalist who everyone should respect. She used her credibility and prominence to confer both on me, so that people were inclined to talk to me, instead of eyeing my name tag and walking away. She lifted me up.

Neither person had any real impact on me professionally. I don't work with or for either of them. But I've been thinking about both incidents as part of a much larger issue, which is how women use the considerable power we wield over each other.

Sometimes, it's the power in the moment to make or break someone else's mental state. Sometimes, it's the power to take the status we might have, whether in a social setting or a professional one, and use it to elevate someone else. And sometimes, our power has career and financial implications for another woman. There's obviously a lot of angst about President-elect Donald Trump's attitudes toward women, but the way women treat each other also deserves some thought.

The sad truth is that we women aren't always very good to each other. It isn't just Hillary Clinton's infamous categorization of Monica Lewinsky as a "narcissistic loony toon," or Ann Coulter tweeting that "without fat girls, there would be no protests." Who out there hasn't experienced another woman knocking you down professionally, or refusing to support you? Among women in male dominated professions, some, in candid moments, will say that they didn't get any help from the women who came before. Quite the opposite. The attitude has been, "I had to suffer, so you do too." And it isn't just in the professional world. What mother hasn't experienced the cruelty of other women, who often seem to act like we're all back in Mean Girls High?

On the other hand, we've also all experienced the kindness and support of other women, and boy, what a difference it can make. I've been working on a piece that involves women in the financial services industry. I've heard story after story about the importance of sponsorship, which is defined as using your own political capital and position to lift someone else up. I've experienced it at my children's school, where the friendship of other women who understand the ropes has helped me immensely. (I'm convinced this is one reason for white male hegemony: Men, particularly men who have played the same sport, seem to support each other. But that's another story.)

For all the power we have to hurt each other, we also have the power to help each other. When I sent a draft of this piece to a friend, she responded with a quote from Goethe: "I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal." Indeed.

So here's my battle cry! Regardless of whether you do or don't do all the official mentoring stuff, direct some energy toward helping other women, even if it's just an offer to have a drink with a colleague or subordinate, a friendly smile in the school pick up line, or a rescue of that woman standing alone at the cocktail party. If there's a moment where you can be a b---- or be gracious, where you can denigrate or congratulate, where you can shoot down or lift up, for heaven's sake, do the latter. (And if you're the recipient, please respond in kind.) If you can't or won't, then don't complain about Donald Trump's attitudes toward women. Because that's just hypocritical.

By the way, the woman who was so awful to me was a prominent supporter of Hillary Clinton.

This piece originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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