The Jealousy Trap: How Hating Successful Women Holds Us All Back

Amy overlook edited

“Why do women just love to judge each other?” I wanted to ask. My friend, a high-achieving urban planner, whizzed around her kitchen in a stylish dress, putting the final touches on an immaculate dinner.

I’d just asked her opinion of Sheryl Sandberg’s hit book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. I hadn’t read it yet, but was taken aback by scathing criticism I’d seen, and I wondered: Why do we, as a culture, love to attack successful women so much? I couldn’t believe her book could be so offensive as to deserve such a reaming in the media.

“I think her point is really that we need to support women, whatever they choose to do, whether it’s focus more on career or focus more on home life,” my friend said, carrying the salad bowl out to the dining room table.

Critiques of outspoken, powerful women like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg zing across the blogosphere, and body-image shaming of high-profile athletes and other public figures is apparently fair game for media. We complain about the lack of women in high-powered leadership positions, and then we nit-pick the ones who do work their way to the top. We try to encourage more young women to stick with sports, but then when they succeed, the media tears them apart either for being attractive—accusing them of marketing their sexuality—or punishes them for not being attractive enough. Lolo Jones or Sierra Blair-Coyle, anyone?

Love her or hate her, Sheryl Sandberg brought attention to a super important—and deeply pervasive—cultural bias: “Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women … When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.”

“Acting in stereotypically feminine ways makes it difficult to reach for the same opportunities as men, but defying expectations and reaching for those opportunities leads to being judged as undeserving and selfish,” she wrote. It would seem we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

So where does this vitriol for successful women come from?

One psychologist suggests that most female criticism stems from deep insecurities. That seeing someone else succeed in ways that we haven’t points to the vulnerable places where we feel we’ve failed or fallen short.

“Our discomfort with their ascent is mingled with resentments and jealousies and female jostling that is not worthy of the new world of opportunity in which we find ourselves (and, really, not worthy of the schoolyard from which it comes,” wrote a columnist for Slate.

It’s difficult enough for women to succeed in sports, the corporate world and home life as it is. How will women ever progress, if we won’t support each other?

All of our dreams and experiences are unique, but are any of them inherently better? Is one of us more special because we choose to—or not to—prioritize a career? Or because we happen be both athletic and feminine? Or athletic and unfeminine?

So much of our culture pits women against each other, comparing us and picking us apart. What would happen if we decided to be supportive of other women’s successes, even if they don’t look like our own dreams of success?

Last week I interviewed guide and ski mountaineer Sheldon Kerr for a story, which I thought would be about her recent Alaskan first descents. Before we even got to discuss where her trip had taken her, she shared several powerful discoveries she’d made about how her confidence levels affect her performance in the mountains, and how she was challenging herself with bigger objectives. She was fired up to share the message of confidence building with other women—and it pumped me up. I was in the lounge at a climbing gym when I took the call, and when I walked back into the gym and got on a particularly tough—for me—route, my confidence was surging. I can do this, I thought. The chat with Sheldon was so uplifting, it recharged me for my own tasks and has stuck with me since.

If the residual effects of a single phone call can go that far, what would happen if we all spent a little less time tearing down other people for their successes, and a little more time supporting each other along the way?

9 Responses to The Jealousy Trap: How Hating Successful Women Holds Us All Back

  1. This was such a thoughtful post….I know I’m often intimidated by other women climbing but as soon as someone throws me “Good job!” I feel like superwoman. We should all make it a point to compliment or help another woman out there, every single time! Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. K says:

    I’ve recently accepted a full-time position, better paid and with more opportunity for advancement than my current workplace that has a mainly female employee base. Boy, did the claws come out once my resignation email got around! One coworker (who’s been trying to get a full-time position somewhere else for six years) won’t speak to me, and another implied I was bulimic. This was exactly what I needed to read this morning to remind me that it’s not about me, it’s about their insecurities and pettiness.

  3. Lee says:

    A wonderful piece. I run into this all the time. Many years ago when I went back to school to earn my graduate degree, I told a female acquaintance of mine and she replied with a confused look, “Oh, why would you do that?” My explanation of wanting to better myself, gain more experience and open new opportunities for advancement in the workplace did not seem to diminish her confusion. I wasn’t seeking accolades, but I wasn’t expecting a negative response, either. It was a rather bizarre exchange.

  4. Stoked to see that the conversation about the “confidence gap” has leaked far beyond the board room. Match your confidence with your competence gals. Then go crush something. Hard.

  5. Jay Long says:

    Very interesting read with great follow-up comments. Seems like this phenomenon applies across the spectrum of human existence. I’ve heard it likened to “crabs in a bucket.” Crabs will relentlessly try to climb to the top of a bucket in order to escape, but when success is close for one, crabs at the bottom will pull the escapee back down; seemingly for no other reason than to deny the accomplishment. It truly is a reflection of one’s self and insecurities as to how we handle other peoples’ success. Great, intriguing read.

  6. Pingback: Fired Up: climbing and gender – Stoking the Fire

  7. We should know what really holds us all back because of jealousy of other people.

  8. Maureen says:

    Your depiction of the positive snowballing effect of Sheldon Kerr’s generous sharing of her own self-observation and the boost that it gave you is right on!! Great work, ladies!!

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