There’s much that’s been written about why women can’t seem to get ahead - not ahead enough, anyway, to be taken as seriously as men in many settings, or to be earning as much money on the whole as their male counterparts.
Typically, women blame men.
But one of my girlfriends recently posited another theory.
“At the end of the day,” she said, “a lot of women aren’t really happy for one another’s success. A lot of women don’t support their friends when it counts.”
My eyes widened in surprise. My friend and I both fancied ourselves 21st Century feminists. What she was saying sounded decidedly un-feminist.
“That’s not true,” I protested.
“You’re successful and we’re friends,” I told her. My friend is at the top of her career right now. She’s beautiful and married and has a brand new baby. She’s the personification of success and I adore her.
“And you’re successful and we’re friends,” she answered, laughing. We were chatting at a party that was being held in honor of my new book.
“I’m not talking about us,” my friend said “And I’m not talking about all women. But I’m talking about a tendency in a lot of women. I’m talking about those women who are your friends until you start succeeding in ways they feel like they can’t - or in ways that they want to succeed but haven’t. Women, more than men, tend to only want to be friends with women they consider equals or with women they secretly feel more attractive or more successful than.
For women, it’s easy to be friends through the bad times like breakups and layoffs. But wanna find out who your real friends are? Go and succeed. Your real friends are the ones who stand by you and cheer you on when you do well. But a lot of women let jealousy get in the way of that. Women in their heart of hearts are just more jealous of one another than men are of other men. And until we change that, society’s not going to change. Think about it.”
And so I did.
I thought about what she said all night. All week. All month. Six months later, I’m still thinking about it. And this is what I’ve concluded: She’s got a point. It pains me to admit it. Especially as the mother of a daughter and lifelong believer in the ability of women to do anything they put their minds to. But my friend is on to something.
At all kinds of big junctures in life, the reactions of even once-close girlfriends to news of success can be tinged with the sort of jealousy that threatens to undermine not only our friendships, but the advance of we women as a whole. With female friendships that can come undone simply because of woman’s achievement or success, it begs the question, who needs enemies?
Marriage is a prime example that illustrates the point of how female friends don’t always support one another as they should – when they should. Watch an episode of ‘Say Yes to the Dress’ or re-watch the film, ‘Bridesmaids’, and you’ll see the little green monster get the best of one-time BFFs. The same women who happily supported their gal pals when they’d been dumped are often less keen to offer hugs and encouragement when their gal pals are planning dream weddings.
The transition to motherhood is much the same. I distinctly remember the cruel and surprising comments some of my supposed *friends* leveled at me when I announced I was pregnant with my third, then fourth child. “What are you – a machine?” one hissed, clearly displeased. “Shouldn’t you or your husband get fixed?” asked another, without even bothering to utter the word ‘Congratulations.’ It was hard for me to believe the comments were being lobbed at me in the 21st Century. Isn’t this the era, I wondered, in which women have evolved and we’re supposed to be all about celebrating one another’s successes – both at home and at work?
In the workplace, women typically are harder on female colleagues than they are on their male colleagues. Even in 2016, it’s not unusual for tongues to wag when a woman receives a big promotion, especially if the promotion seems to come quickly. Rumors spread that attractive women are using their sexuality or “assets” to get ahead. And too often the rumors are spread not by men – but by women, many of whom once identified themselves as “friends.”
And then there’s the ridiculousness that plays out in school hallways. I used to think that when women became mothers they’d reached a place of contentment and happiness in their lives in which jealousy took a backseat towards more noble things – like preparing the next generation for the future. But that’s not the case.
I recently overheard a conversation while dropping my little ones off at preschool that went something like this:
Mom Number One: “So-and-so is amazing. But she’s someone I could never be friends with.”
Mom Number Two: “Why? What’s the matter with her?”
Mom Number One: “She’s perfect. Perfect body. Perfect job. Perfect husband. Who needs that?”
There are even studies that suggest some women don’t want their girlfriends to succeed when it comes to weight loss – noting that one of the biggest deterrents to shedding extra pounds is friends who consciously or subconsciously work to railroad a friend’s dieting efforts.
These are all examples of women failing to support successful women they *know* - women with whom they’re *supposed* to be friends. Women tend to be just as hard, if not harder, on women they haven’t met– notably the celebrities that adorn the covers of People and Us Magazine. How many times have all of us picked up one of the magazines, not to celebrate a powerful woman’s success, but instead to pore over a beautiful woman’s divorce or weight gain or difficulty conceiving? What is it about us women that makes us want to fixate on the flaws in women who otherwise have it all, instead of celebrating their accomplishments? Why do we want to revel in the imperfections and heartbreaks of strong women, instead of concentrating on all they’ve done *right*?
I admit I’ve been guilty of letting the little green monster get the best of me at times – both in the presence of successful women I know and in reading about successful celebrities I’ve never met. Before I met my husband, it was harder for me to be genuinely happy for some of my girlfriends who were getting engaged. I’m embarrassed to say I even intentionally skipped a pair of weddings – blaming my absence on work-related assignments instead of on the jealousy that lurked within. And I also admit I’ve bought more than my fair share of women’s magazines aimed at magnifying the flaws of otherwise-successful women. Schadenfreude gets the best of all of us at times.
But here’s the thing: A girlfriend’s success should be about a girlfriend’s success. Not about our own insecurities. Too often we allow ourselves to view a girlfriend’s perfect skin, shiny new engagement ring, beautiful pregnancy as a threat, causing us to question our own self worth. And until we stop doing that - until we consciously work to be better friends to one another and to emphatically cheer one another on through successes- we’re not going to make the additional strides we need to as a gender in the realms of business, politics and beyond.
I’ve been fortunate. In finding myself in a secure and happy place – a wonderful job, a strong marriage to an amazing man, four beautiful and healthy kids, a successful book – it’s become ever-easier for me to break the cycle and to become an ever-stronger supporter of my fellow women, an ever-better cheerleader of a friend. I realize now more than ever that we women need to actively root for one another through the big achievements and moments.
I didn’t want my darling friend to be right when she took me aside that night, six months ago. But now I’m grateful to her for shining a spotlight on the shortcoming we face as a gender. Too often, even the closest of female friends don’t support one another the way we should. We need to be just as good at celebrating the successes of strong females as we’ve historically been in pointing out, even taking perverse pleasure in, their shortcomings.
Yes, when we talk about advances women have made in the past century, we’ve come a long way. A long way from the days in which we couldn’t vote and had little to no voices. My daughter at age 3 is already playing sports and taking activities I could only have dreamed of pursuing. But as my friend points out – we women could go a lot further and do a lot better for not only my daughter – but also for one another.
It’s time we make a more conscious effort to support one another - even our insanely happy, ridiculously gorgeous, deliriously successful friends - in the *good* times as well as the bad.
Mary Pflum Peterson is a multi-Emmy-Award-winning producer for ABC News/ Good Morning America. She is additionally the author of the New York Times bestseller White Dresses: A Memoir of Love and Secrets, Mothers and Daughters. She and her husband, Dean, live in New York with their four young children.