Nomzama Mbatha used her graduation to raise awareness about depression, anxiety and mental illness, wearing a dress bearing SADAG’s toll-free number. Pictures: Supplied
“LOCK 20 men in a room and they’re likely to come out as friends. Lock 20 women in a room and they’re likely to come out as enemies.” That, unfortunately is a reality many women are experiencing in the workplace, resulting in women becoming their own worst enemies.

Simply, put, women often pull each other down, instead of uplifting each other. And as we celebrate Women’s Month with the usual annual fanfare and sloganism before fading into oblivion post-August, like the Department of Women, it is time for serious introspection as women and our treatment of each other.

There seems to be growing resentment of women in power - not just by men, but by other women too. Coupled with this, many women at the top are often accused of behaving like queen bees. Ruthless, nasty, bullies who not only keep their female colleagues down, but also feel threatened by those with potential to climb the ladder.

As a result, they would rarely recommend another woman for promotion, choosing, instead, to appoint a male counterpart. Someone they can easily manipulate and who would not overshadow their role as queen bee in the workplace.

It seems, women bond easily over gender violence issues, but rarely join forces in the corporate world.

Could it be that women at the top have had to fight their way to get there - taking on mainly male competitors and are therefore more likely to adopt an aggressive streak which they themselves are not aware of? As a result, women in senior positions are often referred to by other women as “bitchy, aggressive and power-hungry”.

One female senior executive, who asked not to be named, simply put it down to having to prove she was worthy of her position.

“If a woman in power shows emotion or empathy, she is often seen as weak and emotional, unlike a man who does not have to contend with such accusations. I’ve had to become hard, ruthless and almost act like a man to earn respect.

“It is sad but I have to be quite bitchy to be taken seriously at the top. It’s not that I no longer have compassion for women. It’s just the nature of my role and gender dynamics. I don’t want to come across as weak,” she adds.

Several international studies, including some undertaken by global research organisations Pew and Gallup found that women in the corporate world would rather have a male than a female boss.

The research went as far as to conclude a female working alongside another female was more likely to suffer stress and depression than those working for a man.

It would be unfair to taint all women in power with the same brush. There are those exceptional women who empower other women in the workplace too - yet receive little recognition.

Such exceptional women are also found more in humanitarian fields than corporate work. Yes, there are some amazing woman doing amazing work in the corporate sector, but not many. By far, women pull each other down more often than not. Many women at the top want to see you do good, but never better than them, is the sentiment often echoed by working women.

But, we must pay tribute to those who have worked hard to uplift others. Renowned amazing women include the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela who despite the controversies that surrounded her, was known to work hard to uplift women.

It is an enormous travesty of justice that she was treated as a social and political pariah ostensibly for a crime she maintained she didn’t commit.

It was women from her own ANC Women’s League who united in their condemnation of her, opting not to elect her as league president in the wake of allegations of her involvement in the murder of a young boy.

Tragically, her name was only cleared after her death, when the boy’s mother finally spoke out, saying she believed in Mandela’s innocence.

A former police commissioner also announced - again, after her death - that there was no evidence linking her to the murder. Yet she was vilified for well over 30 years, especially by women, for the crime.

Sizani Ngubane, founder of the Rural Women’s Movement is another example of someone working hard to empower women at grassroots level - shying away from the glamour women’s breakfasts and conferences which are often nothing more than shop talk served with lunch.

Organisations and NGOs uplifting and driven by women are flourishing, in spite of funding constraints and these need to be lauded for their efforts.

However more is needed to ensure gender parity in the workplace - for women, by women. We cannot bash men for gender violence, yet remain silent when it comes to the pull-down syndrome many women face in the workplace.

The syndrome appears to be rife, and on the rise. As one female worker says: “I used to be friends with a female colleague until she was promoted to department head. Since then, she’s become a different person. She is pushy, cold and indifferent to issues affecting women. She runs the department with an iron fist and will not tolerate any criticism, whether constructive or not.

“She feels threatened by other women and has ensured that several women who applied for promotion do not get it - even though she knows full well that they deserve it. She wants to be the voice of women at head office and does not want any other woman sharing that space with her, and will do anything to keep other women out, especially those with potential to grow.

“She will do anything to make herself look good at head office, often taking credit for work done by others, failing to promote good work by other women and just acting as if she alone is responsible for the successful output at work.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by others in the corporate world on the dynamics of working with a female boss and is becoming all too frequent.

Women’s empowerment needs to be taken beyond the boardroom. Women need to uplift other women and not feel threatened by each other. Only then can we really shape the way society, and men, view gender parity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.