“I just don’t like working with women. They are so catty. I’d prefer to work with men.”
It’s a sentiment I’ve heard over and over from women I’ve known, and one I used to feel, myself. I saw them as competitors, and threats to my success. However, as my career has progressed, I’ve realized the importance of supporting fellow women. And in the process, I’ve found the women I didn’t like were more like me than I had thought.
Now, rather than reject my talented female colleagues, I embrace them.
Over the last five years I discovered that my kneejerk reactions to other women were affecting the way I treated them. If I had a personal difference with a female colleague, I rejected her. My perceptions were clouding my judgment and behavior, and creating boundaries against what could have been powerful camaraderie in the workplace.
And I wasn’t alone. As women, we are too quick to reject any woman we perceive as a threat. That rejection too often manifests as shallow and harsh judgment: Boy is she fat. She isn’t a good mother. She just trying to get the men’s attention. How pathetic.
But the truth is, each time we tear down another woman in a kneejerk response to a perceived threat, we give men permission to do the same thing. So how can we overcome the reflex to reject other women? It comes down to controlling our fear-based reactions to ensure hollow differences don’t cloud our first impressions.
Overhauling the way we see the world and respond to difficult situations is a tall order, and few people are bold enough to take it on. Instead, most will spend hours, days and years wrestling with external characteristics. But the truth is, the only thing we can truly impact is the way we engage with and think about one another. It’s one thing to dislike someone’s personality or appearance, but it does us no good to let minor details cloud our professional respect for one another.
Here are five ways reframe your perceptions and improve your relationships with female colleagues:
1) Be Open To Changing Your Mind
Be open to upending your first impression. We’re often quick to judge and label other women in order to elevate ourselves. But give those thoughts a critical look. Is your flash judgment true or fair? You may find that you start to question what goes on up there in your head.
2) Be Patient
You may find yourself on the receiving end of this reactionary judgment. Be patient. Maybe you triggered something in her and she is slow to trust. Maybe she doesn’t know how to receive because she’s been in your shoes too many times. Resist the urge to retaliate. Don’t rock the boat. Keep rowing and invite her to join you.
3) Look For The Good
If our instinct is to dissolve threats by looking for flaws, we can reset our thinking to seek out positive traits, instead. When I meet another woman, I always find one good thing about her to anchor our interaction. For example, I once told a stranger in an airport that admired a beautiful piece of jewelry she had on. It cost me nothing but I’ll never forget her response. Her whole face brightened as she told me she’d woken up in a horrible mood and my small gesture had made her day.
Our egos will always gravitate toward negativity, but we don’t have to take the bait. This small practice helps cultivate positive thoughts and find common ground.
4) Be Empathetic
Practicing empathy when someone lashes out is the hardest thing you’ll ever do, but it’s also among the most important. Rather than retaliate, put yourself in the aggressor’s shoes. Conjure up a time in your life when you felt angry or hurt, and recall how you lashed out. Then look at her again. I bet you see her differently. If we treat our “opponents” with empathy in adversarial situations, we may find they no longer seem so adversarial.
5) Publicly Support Other Women
The best way for women to garner support in the workplaces is to set an example. Support other women openly and verbally when you agree with their points or admire their work. Express that support in meetings, at the water cooler and any chance you get — no matter how jealous or judgmental you may feel.
As professional women, the most important thing we can do is rally around each other, supporting, embracing and encouraging each other without judgment. Whether we’re friends outside of work or not, we’re teammates in the office, and it’s time we acted that way.
Elizabeth Lions is the author of two business books, Recession Proof Yourself and I Quit! Working For You Isn’t Working For Me, and of a third, soon-to-be-released book on leadership. Lions is a coach and speaker for some of the largest high tech companies in the United States, and also has the privilege of teaching and developing leaders in the Middle East and Europe. She is based in Dallas.