First off, let me agree that there ARE some awfully insecure men AND women who will talk behind one another's backs to make life more difficult. My advice, avoid them, but don't jump to conclusions about an entire gender because of one nasty person. (My mother always taught me, "If someone is talking nasty about someone else to you, he or she will probably talk nasty about you to someone else.")
But the myth that women are unsupportive of one another and, even worse, that we are catty, petty and jealous of one another's success has not been my experience and tends to only serve to create distrust between women that perpetuates the myth itself. The worst part is that I used to believe the myth until I actually experienced the opposite. I thought women who were good friends and supportive were the exception rather than the norm...until I realized I was just experiencing the wrong sample size.
My first year of university was eye-opening. I was encouraged by a friend to attend Club Days, an expo of all of the clubs to join on campus. Somehow I ended up talking with a group of women from a sorority. I was skeptical. But four years later, I am glad I took the leap. This amazing group taught me that women aren't catty at all. Yes, we can get emotional and hurt and fight with one another, but we watched the same emotional blow ups with the fraternity guys we knew.
Over the years, I've noticed something. When I've approached male-dominated spaces: work environments, clubs, etc and there are only a few women present, some of them DID greet me with skepticism. But there is a reason for this. The myth of the cat fight exists strongly in these environments. It's the strangest thing. It's like a woman is greeted into this world with:
"Welcome to the boys club! Beware of the women you see. They will not like your appointment here."
This immediately creates a false competition between the few women in the group, however, it's super easy to disarm. Instantly, I sidle up to the few women in the room and make friends. It takes a few days, but once you win one another's trust, you become a force to deal with in the group.
Personally, I believe that's why the myth soldiers on...to keep us from talking. ;)
With Marissa Mayer's recent appointment as CEO of Yahoo!, there have been a few references made to this idea that women are jealous of one another's success. First with Owen Thomas who takes a HUGE leap of assumption to pit Sheryl Sandberg and Mayer against one another in competition. Sandberg was obviously feeling the burn of competition because it took her a whole 5 or 6 hours to post a congratulatory note on her Facebook wall (couldn't have anything to do with the fact that Sandberg is a very busy executive and now board member of one of the biggest companies in the Valley). Then today with Michael Arrington who takes another leap of assumption that women in technology aren't supportive of Marissa's appointment because we haven't appeared on a talk radio show defending Yahoo!'s decision to hire a pregnant CEO. I'm pretty sure most of us avoid listening to inflammatory talk shows and don't think bringing ourselves to that level is worth the energy, but there have been oodles of great articles written by women in support of Yahoo! and her own decision. And within discussion groups I'm part of, there has been an outpouring of hope and elation from women in tech who believe Mayer's appointment is going to be a boon for all of us.
But that wasn't the first time I've heard this. Quite subtly, I've heard this in other contexts recently from leaders like Thomas and Arrington. I watched VC, Charlie O'Donnell perpetuate this myth on stage at a Fashion:Tech conference. And one of my favorite supporters of women, Dave McClure called out women for to invest in women implying that women with the dollars to invest aren't supporting women in tech even though us women know of a couple of strong examples where this is actively happening. And I know all of these guys (Thomas, Arrington, O'Donnell and McClure) mean well and they want to help, but they should know that this is not helping, it's perpetuating a very negative stereotype. Yes, we need to step up even more as women, but we aren't the ones creating the rifts.
I've been a 'woman in tech' now for many years. In 2005 as I entered the scene, I was welcomed into the group with open arms...only...I was warned about the women who were already present. Lucky for me, I already knew that this was code for "Don't gather and upset the balance," so I ignored the warnings. Yes, there were one or two women who proved to be very unsupportive of other women, but they were in the minority. I actually found that the women I befriended bent over backwards to help me and my career much more than most of my male colleagues (there were a few of those who I'd deem as 'catty and petty').
Today, I count HUNDREDS of amazing, smart, supportive, kickass women as my closest friends and allies in the tech scene. When I need a place to stay, 9 out of 10x, it's the women who offer. When I've asked for help with spreading the word on my projects, more often than not, it's the women who are quick with a tweet or an introduction. Men are wonderful at the five-minute-favor, but I get the full-on-drop-everything-and-listen-then-help from my girls.
My experience is opposite of those who believe women are catty, backstabbing, petty, jealous beotches who want the title of token women all to themselves. I have hundreds of women I fraternize with daily who would back me up on this one. When I see another woman, I'm relieved and feel way more comfortable in a space, not threatened. I'm sure my girls would all agree they feel the same.
So please, men AND women, stop perpetuating this negative stereotype. It isn't universal truth and it acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy for those who don't know any better. Bias hurts all of us.
[p.s. it's been suggested that the cat fight myth is less of a 'keep women from gathering' conspiracy and more likely to be fodder for male fantasy. I google image searched 'Woman Cat Fight' and think there may be something to that theory. It seems we need to be topless to battle one another. Seinfeld and Kramer agree.]