04/21/2015 05:09 EDT | Updated 06/21/2015 05:59 EDT

Judgy Women Are the Enemies of Feminism

mad men

The most interesting part of Mad Men, now in its final season, is the tense dynamic between the show's two female leads. Peggy and Joan should have reason to bond -- they both climbed their way from clerical work in the 60s-era advertising industry to positions of power usually reserved for men. Instead, the sexism they experience in the workplace often drives them apart.

In a recent episode, the pair try to sell three male shareholders on a pantyhose account. Predictably, Joan is harassed. "You should be in the bra business," smarmy man number one says to the voluptuous red head. "You're a work of art."

After the meeting, instead of sharing their disgust, Joan and Peggy turn their frustrations on each other. Side-by-side in the elevator, Peggy blames Joan's outfit -- a form-fitted fuchsia blazer -- for the leering behaviour ("you can't have it both ways"). Joan snaps that Peggy is just too homely to empathize. The interaction made me cringe with recognition. Though the show is a period piece, the toxic dynamic on display is alive and well in 2015.

You know the one I'm talking about. Women, frustrated by the gender discrimination, harassment and absurd beauty standards channel their anger toward other women. It's easier to judge a colleague than to fight against patriarchy. But feminism cannot evolve unless we stop seeing our differences as points of conflict.

Women size each other up, the appraisals fast and shallow. Braces company Incognito conducted a study that found women make judgments within 20 seconds of meeting (yes, this company has a vested interest in making us feel insecure). Most focused on the other woman's waistline, followed by her makeup. In fact, we can be much harder on each other than we are on men. Thirty per cent of women said that on a night out, they dress up to compete with their own sex rather than to woo suitors. North American women have made a pastime out of hating Gwyneth Paltrow and Anne Hathaway. Yes, Goop sucks and Hathaway has big teeth, but there's no world in which we would direct such vain vitriol towards male celebrities.

Other women make us feel threatened and insecure. Research from a psychologist at the University of Ottawa found that the more attractive a woman is, the more other women will dislike her. From an evolutionary perspective, good looks attract men and women want to protect their family unit. In a more modern context, buxom blondes simply make us feel bad about our own looks.

This mix of self-loathing and fear results in catty behaviour (scientists call it "indirect aggression.") Women are much more likely to talk behind someone's back (she's a "basic bitch"), exclude her from activities or give her cut-eye than to directly channel their antagonism. Psychologists say that since women once depended on social groups to raise their children, we opaquely backstab one another to avoid consequences. Of course online, the bullying is more upfront. While the web has added minority voices to mainstream feminism (poor women, LGBTQ women, ethnic women), important conversations about white female privilege can feel more like mudslinging than problem-solving (see: Patricia Arquette's tone deaf Oscar comments and the online backlash).

Many feminist bullies exist in the workplace. We hear a lot about sexual harassment, but less about the fact that women in positions of power often show disdain for their same-sex colleagues. A recent survey from the Workplace Bullying Institute revealed that female office bullies target other women more than 70 per cent of the time. A professor at Washington University's Olin Business School found that most top female brass discourage new women employees for two main reasons: they feel threatened in their role as the token smart women or fear the new hire will act stupidly and make them look bad. Three cheers for corporate sisterhood!

While it's no longer acceptable to spend a business meeting sexually harassing a woman about her breasts, the feelings Joan and Peggy have toward one another are far from extinct. For all the progress toward equal rights, we have yet to tackle our toxic dynamic with other women. Rather than slut-shame and squabble over each other's outfit choices, we should unite to fight the real oppressors.

*This column originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.


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