Backstabbing Women, Part 1

dagger, fight, women, feminism

People like to say bad things about women competing with each other, and stabbing each other in the back. Every fiber in my being resists these petty stereotypes.


A couple days ago, my friend Jim P. alerted me to a provocative essay which asks that we women stop sniping at each other. The author, media expert Gini Dietrich, laments as follows:

It’s in our DNA, our genes, our chromosomes to be catty and judgmental. But we have to stop being that way. The circle repeats itself because young girls see us behave that way and they learn the behavior. It must stop.

I think she means that part about DNA metaphorically, and I agree with the part about younger women. But I started to really pay attention when I read this:

…there were only two women speakers (minus the panelists) at SocialMix on Thursday…Women (speakers) are not being invited to events as much as men. But plenty of women organize and coordinate those events…there are plenty of women speakers who are fantastic. Invite them to speak at your next conference…and pay them the same fee you would pay the men (I’ve noticed women are paid about half of what men are paid, but that’s a different story for a different time). Pay them the same.

Yikes. Half? Gini continues:

Supporting other women is the very first step…Stop judging what they’re wearing, how they speak, how they do their hair, and whether or not we think we could live their lives better than they do.

I know this is just Gini’s take, but there’s a certain measure of truth in it. (Just for fun, here’s a mean girls video) I have a theory that the reasons women are critical of each other are: 1) fear. They subconsciously perceive themselves as underdogs, so feel uncomfortable when a peer gains a big advantage; and 2) training. We learn this bad behavior, generation to generation. Criticism of women is pervasive in our culture.

For example, it’s the whole reason “women’s magazines” exist. Have you ever really looked at their covers? Almost every article is about self-improvement, or getting your house in order, or being a better you.



If you’re thinking men’s magazines are probably about self-improvement too, they’re trending that way, but here’s a list of the top 5 men’s magazines. Do you think they’re writing about organizing the house or making sure the kids get fed wholesome meals?

  1. Sports Illustrated
  2. Maxim Magazine
  3. ESPN The Magazine
  4. Men’s Health
  5. Playboy Magazine

But back to the issue at hand – women picking at each other. I agree with Gini on this important point: Change starts with us, ladies.

I vow to completely stop making any comments about a woman’s appearance unless I can phrase it in terms I might use to describe a man. As in: she’s so full of energy! Or, she acts as if she’s lost interest. It’s not impossible, but once I started, I noticed how often I had to stifle myself when a comment sprang to my lips about a woman gaining weight or looking like she’d had work done.

It was interesting, because then I’d ask myself, “What’s my motivation?” How does it serve me, to point this out?” Any shrink will tell you that all behavior is motivated. What do I get from making negative observations about a complete stranger? If I’m with a woman friend, it might bind us more closely, in that we’re tittering at the same thing. If I’m with my husband, such a remark might do the same thing, or it might convey the message to him that I’m aware of the dangers of obesity, say, or excessive plastic surgery, and that I would never let myself sink to that other woman’s level. But doesn’t that make Bill the boss, and me the supplicant? Who gives a shit what he thinks about that other woman’s weight or plastic? It’s my choice to hand him, or any man, the power to select and discriminate.

I guess this means I believe that vying for men’s approval, in whatever context, is still the main motivation underlying this unsisterly behavior. Men being the ruling class (Don’t agree? Look at the gender balance in the legislative branch of government, or the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. There are no more significant indicators of power in America than these two), maybe we’re subconsciously trying to align ourselves with the power gender, by whatever means possible. Building ourselves up by tearing our sisters down.

If true, that should be an easy thing to break free of. All we have to do is ask ourselves what our motivation is for making the negative comments. Then take it up a notch: help a gal get ahead. A rising tide lifts all boats. Once we’re all eatin’ good, the sniping should stop. That’s my take, anyway. What do you think? (For Part 2 of Backstabbing Women, click here.)


  1. says

    Dear Lynne, Today is my birthday and I am reading your blog like a really long birthday card. It’s just what I needed. I love the point about hiring women speakers. And your Power posts: I’ve always thought that Hollywood is missing the boat by making movies aimed at 19 year old boys. All the drama is in middle age! And I also get annoyed by the middle-aged actresses who botox themselves out of any believable roles and then complain there are no parts for them. I keep thinking, “Stop going to the dermatologist and start producing something that people our age would want to see, and cast yourself in it!”

  2. says

    Great points Lynne. Part of the reason I loved playing team sport is that girls put the bitchiness aside to work together toward a common goal…winning the game!
    Just ordered Dakota Blues today and will carry it back to Switzerland with me to read on the plane! Can’t wait!

  3. says

    I agree with 90% of what you’re saying, Pamela, but I’m just finishing a book that says it’s more genetic (linked to being a woman) than environmental! I’ll have more next Friday.

  4. Kathy Ortegon says

    You bring up some very good points Lynne, but I don’t see our society getting away from the “Back Stabbing Women’s Society”, The so-called “Reality Shows” on TV encourage this type of behavior in all social circles. It makes me MAD everytime I see this stuff on TV. Then there are the magazines you pointed out. (Don’t forget about GQ). I work in an environment full of testosterone, (oil; gas), with a woman boss who seems tuff on the outside but I can tell she is scared to cross boundaries…I have been fortunate to have some strong, intelligent women friends (such as yourself Lynne), to help guide me with the experience you have acquired in your professional career.

    • says

      KO, I am almost finished reading a book about this, and there’s a lot of research to show that women just are that way. Different degrees, different levels of confidence, different amounts of warmth they’re willing to share, different appetites for conflict…BUT, there is still more to this behavior than meets the eye. It’s quite shocking, and in my opinion, a total bummer! I’m going to talk about it this Friday. Thanks for stopping by.

      • Pamela Hanks says

        In my opinion it stems from whatever level of integrity a person is at. Compassion is taught, it is not a given. Integrity, it would seem, would be learned as well. The younger one is taught these, of course the better. What are we teaching our children? How much integrity do we use when we open our mouths or conduct in our behavior? Little foxes can spoil the vine.
        Narcissism is the extreme, and I’m not referring to having narcissistic actions. Instead it is the inability to see things that pertain to anyone else. This worst case scenario is an ‘emotional illness’, Borderline Personality Disorder. If one looks at how that comes about, there is a crucial time frame in a child’s development where this ingredient is void. I think the age is 15 mo. to 24 mos.
        Learning Integrity and compassion is enviornmental.

  5. says

    Wow, Lynne. There’s lots to chew on here. I’m recalling several female executives I have worked with in my career who , quite frankly , have been brutal, to the point of being bullies. I don’t know if they felt they had to defend themselves against the “good old boy “network or if it was their nature. They never outgrew their “mean girl” stance. I got to the point of preferring men bosses even though some of whom were equally as difficult. I always think there is a reason behind why people act as they do and I like your call to be more supportive to one another. Unfortunately girls do learn at an early age to act mean, so often out of petty jealousy. It does behoove us to model more compassionate behavior toward one another.

    • says

      Kathy, I mentioned this in my comment above to Madeleine, above, that there might be an actual, logical reason we do it, and I’m reading “In the Company of Women” right now to unlock that mystery. I’ll write a follow-up. It’s pretty deep. It’s more, I think, than just our mothers or society teaching us this bad habit. It may be an evolutionary thing. More later!

  6. Pamela Hanks says

    Let the words of our mouth and the meditation of our hearts be accecptable in thy sight…. Bob Marley’s song shares a truth in a palatable way. I see, that we do the tearing down across the board. We create when we speak, words are powerful. Think upon those things that are good and true. Setting aside that sometimes we need to tear down a faulty constructed structure, building is better than destroying. Little foxes spoil the vine. The seemingly small thoughts that turn into words can and will harm. Placing a watchman at the gates of our mouth is, indeed, a good thing. Thank you Lynne, for a reminder.

  7. says

    Very thought-provoking post, Lynne. The tendency toward bitchiness seems to start young — it’s a pity it starts at all and more a pity that it’s allowed to continue. Building someone else up doesn’t mean you’re tearing yourself down. Tearing someone else down only casts you in a negative light. Why don’t we see this??

  8. says

    That’s one reason neither I nor my husband like to work with women. The drama and cattiness make one crazy! My 10 yo granddaughter is already a master at whipping out that tongue and slicing away at her sister. Why?? I think women would make greater strides everywhere if this behavior were eliminated. I love this post and appreciate the movement to grow up! Angie :)

  9. says

    This was a terrific post and a fascinating discussion. I think that DNA is not a factor in female-to-female cattiness. After all men and women have the same DNA, the same genes, and the same chromosomes, except for the XX/XY difference.

    The cattiness is comes from a complex mix of fear, self-doubt, competitiveness, jealousy, and related factors.

    I was particulary interested in Melanie’s comment about her relative’s negative remark about Hillary Clinton. The Secretary was also criticized for wearing a scrunchie and for looking “tired” awhile back–none of which has anyhing to do with her excellent performance representing our country abroad.

    This topic deserves a whole book or two.

  10. Barb - The Empty Nest Mom says

    One of the things I’m most pleased about in my life is that my girlfriends are not the kind who speak negatively of other women. We give people and strangers the benefit of the doubt. We’re not ones to slam. I guess we prefer to lift – although it’s not a conscious decision. Conversations can be so much more enriching and there’s so much more in the world to discuss. Great post. It, too, has a positive energy.

  11. sally says

    To paraphrase – you only get one chance at a first 1st impression. So your choices will be judged, off-putting demeaner, clothes – most popular, trendy, or what really states who you are. We can’t always have time or a opportunity to get to know the real you, so yes you will be judged, hopefully on your choices, things you can change, not things you can’t.
    Staying power, hopefully goes to the better performers, not cheaters or undercutters. In the long term everybody is judged, isn’t that how we learn what we like or don’t like. Trying different foods, colors, activities, etc, helps us define our choices in life. According to some that is what makes a human superior to other species. To me it’s not male or female it is the individual..

  12. says

    When I read Ashley Judd’s post about this topic, I was pretty convicted about my own tendency to criticize other women’s appearances, and have made a real effort to stop. It’s hard. Definitely a lifelong habit. I LOVE your comment about making Bill the boss and you the supplicant– that perspective is really important.

    One thing I try to remember is that all women, at least in similar cultures as mine, are subject to the same pressures and expectations about femininity and beauty that I am subject to. Some women deal with them differently, like by getting plastic surgery or making certain fashion choices that I might not make– but they’re fighting the very same fight I am, intentionally or otherwise. It has helped me to be more compassionate and less critical, and to shut up when I’m about to say something nasty.

    • says

      Thanks Meg. I feel kind of bad now for illustrating such a negative aspect of humanity; I know it’s not 100 percent true of everybody. But speaking for myself, when I let go of my competitive feelings and simply celebrate another woman achieving a milestone or gaining confidence in herself, I feel stronger somehow. It’s a joy and a relief.

  13. says

    When I was in high school (many years ago) there was one girl in the class ahead of me who was “the mean girl.” I didn’t have any interaction with her, but I remember she was disliked by many of her classmates. To use your phrase, you could sense her negative energy. Fortunately my experiences with women have been positive. I have learned from them, been supported by, and in return support them. When I’ve felt wounded, it was women friends I turned to. My daughter’s experience has been different. She feel’s in the work place many of the criticism expressed in the article are true. She has women friends but prefer working with men because they are more work focused and less petty.
    Is it “DNA” or environmental and experiences?

  14. Lisa Calderone says

    Lynne, I love your point about self-improvement being the overarching theme of the “women’s” magazines, and how you uploaded the graphics of the latest issue covers to support it. Noticed the “Seventeen” and “More” mags side-by-side – same message pushed throughout the female lifecycle. Would love to see a gender-blind lifestyle magazine come out….how would you imagine the cover stories?!!

    • says

      Wow, Lisa, I didn’t realize, but what a great point! Yes, in More, we worry about a lot of the same stuff! A whole lifetime spent anxious about our looks, for crying out loud! Good catch.

  15. says

    I agree with Joyce. Both sexes have their fare share of being judgmental, its just that women tend to be more vocal and expressive wtih theirs. We also tend to be more detail minded (Did you notice Ginger got her brows lifted?) where men are more general (Ginger looks hot.). I might be wrong, but it seems to me that women (for the most part) are still trying to protect their nests, where as men just want to conquer and rule.

  16. says

    Lynne, wow! What a great post! First, thank you for continuing the message that women will do better when we support one another. And, you’re right, there is something about making fun of – or judging – complete strangers with other women that somehow binds us. It’s sad, but I’m no saint… I do it, too. I like your advice of describing women like you would a man. I’m going to take that advice.

  17. says

    I’ve been thinking about all this and trying to make some changes in my attitude. It bugs me when women snipe at the few women who are in the highest leadership roles. For instance, a female relative makes comments about Hillary Clinton’s weight, and that makes me angry. What does a Secretary of State’s weight have to do with job performance?

    I teach, and in the college classroom I get upset when only the male students tend to speak up. I’ll point out that the women must have something to say, also, and shouldn’t let the men (by far the minority) dominate all discussions. I get weird looks from students sometimes, but it’s an issue I want them to think about! It’s my problem too, because I sometimes find myself looking at male students, expecting them to be the first to respond to a question.

    We still have a long way to go.

    • says

      I feel ya, Melanie. I so often feel like I’m very much in the minority – and I question myself, as in: why am I spending energy on this? Nobody else thinks it’s important, so maybe I’m overreacting. So it’s reassuring to get your comment.

  18. says

    I think women have made tremendous strides here. But I also think its an innate characteristic for us to want to feel and look our best. As a gender, I think we are more complex than men with the ability to juggle a myriad of thoughts, feelings, activities, responsibilities and the like as simply a part of our constitution.

    All people are judgmental, not just women. It’s just that women also tend to be more outspoken. At least that’s my two cents worth.

    • says

      Joyce, you are right about all people being judgmental. And sometimes it seems like we’re more complex, but then it’s hard to know what’s going on in the minds of men.


  1. […] Bottom line, there are biological, psychological, social and cultural reasons why women relate to each other the way we do, and you can ignore it, or you can decide to add the knowledge to your skill set and save yourself a lot of grief. There’s more to this book than what I’ve written, including some great self-tests and suggested strategies. I absolutely recommend it. (If you missed the first post on backstabbing women, click here.) […]

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