Reality check: Women do work together!

Throughout my life I have repeatedly heard the sentence, “Women cannot work together.” When there are assignments given at school, when it comes to organizing events, whatever the task may involve, people would say it is impossible for women to cooperate. At some point or another, most of us women have bought into this lie. We have probably even said the phrase a couple of times; either out-loud or to ourselves.

Like most women I, too, have chosen to be the only woman on the team. I surrounded myself with a group of men that constantly fed my ego with, “You are the only woman who….” I have been part of various circles where I was the only lady because, “You can talk about a lot of things with men while you only gossip with women.” Little did I know I was insulting myself and perpetuating the spread of this false notion. A self-proclaimed feminist, I was arguing about women’s rights while staying clear of women.

Even in school projects, I found myself being the only woman in the group or working alone because almost all of my friends were men. I know I am not alone in this delusion; I have heard many women talk about how it is impossible to deal with a woman boss. Women say managers who are women are difficult to work with and they would rather have a male superior. But, really womankind? What exactly are we asking for?

Why do we dislike women bosses?
Women that hold senior positions are usually disliked by their subordinates for various reasons. My personal favorite is that when women become leaders, they break the cultural expectations of being nurturing and care-giving. I will leave the reason why it is my favorite to your imaginations. People cannot handle it when a woman defies the social construct of what she should act like: quite, shy, submissive. So all of a sudden the positive leadership qualities become negative when a woman exhibits them. For example, when a woman is assertive, she is seen as aggressive.

In her book Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg outlines one Harvard study about success and likability. In the research, two professors gave half their students a case study about a woman named Heidi Roizen, a real life entrepreneur with qualities such as an outgoing personality and a vast professional network. The remaining students were given the same study, but the name “Heidi” was changed to “Howard.” The effect this simple gender tweak had was astonishing. While students respected both Heidi and Howard, most of the students said they didn’t prefer to work with a person like Heidi; they thought she was selfish. Howard, on the other hand, received a more positive reaction; he was seen as an appealing co-worker.

So the next time you feel like your boss—who happens to be a woman—is not someone you would want to work with, ask yourself if you would have felt the same way if she was a man.

When the going gets though
Working together doesn’t require a professional or academic setting. Women have shown tremendous cooperation when things around them go sideways. This is apparent especially when the body that should provide service, be it government or any other agency, fails to meet their needs. Caroline Criado Perez puts women’s cooperation beautifully in her book Invisible Women. She explains how women that are forced to flee, usually due to natural disasters, domestic violence or sex trafficking are provided with shelters that are not so safe. They are forced to share bathrooms and sleeping areas with men, and consequently, they are exposed to sexual harassment. And so, explains Perez, women in refugee camps around the world have adopted systems of going to bathrooms together. Sound familiar?

Another example she gives is how mothers who have to raise their children alone and cannot afford childcare have women in their neighborhoods that look after their kids while they go to work. More close to home, there are Edir, Ekub and Maheber—traditional social institutions women build to support each other emotionally and financially. If you have ever seen an Edir meeting, you know how much cooperation it requires.

My apologies.
I used to think it was a good thing to be “the only woman who….” It took the words of a strong woman for me to realize when I am the only woman, I am really the only woman. After the praises and confidence boosts fade away, I am left with no one that will support me, understand my pain or share my points of view on certain issues. Looking back at my friendships with the few women I have been close too, I realize I could not have been more wrong in thinking I needed to be the only woman.

So I dedicate this blog to every woman I have ever had the privilege to make a friend. I thank my sisters for the times they took off their school uniform sweaters to help me cover the blood stain on my dress. I look back in awe at the slumber parties we had and the gossip (yes, gossip!) and conversations we have lost sleep over. I adore the mental “toilet” sessions I have with my best friend where we shut off our laptops for the night and talk about anxiety, depression and just life in general. I am grateful for all the surprise birthday parties. I don’t know what I would do without my friends’ unwavering moral supports when I failed, cheering me on when I succeeded. I am ever grateful for my internship mentor and professor for everything she has done and continues to do for me. Lastly, I am thankful for AWiB for making it possible for me to work with and learn from phenomenal women.

Written by Hellina Hailu Nigatu