BERLIN - It would have been better if she had dark circles under her eyes. Maybe a little bit of flab around the middle. At the very least a stain on her blouse – anything. Instead, in her first public appearance since the birth of her son, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was as slim and blonde as ever, beaming at the cameras.
"The baby's been easy," she said – no problem at all. How shocking!
Women all over America and the world followed Mayer’s appointment as head of the Internet giant Yahoo, and then early this fall the birth of her first child. Remembering their own tough first few months with a new baby, many young mothers wondered how she would manage. Very well, thank you, as it turns out. And that did not go down well at all.
In fact Mayer’s first post-natal interview sent storm waves crashing through the Internet. Couldn’t she just have kept her mouth shut, feminists, mothers, even childless-by-choice women, asked. Little seems to polarize other women so much as successful women. Or women who have lives very different from the ones they have more or less chosen for themselves.
Ursula von der Leyen? Germany’s Minister of Labor and Social Affairs is the mother of seven children, and then on top of it she always seems to be smiling. Well of course if you have loads of help the way she does… Julia Jäkel? The first woman on the board of a major German publishing house, married to a TV personality, mother of young twins … okay, but what has she herself actually accomplished? Maria Furtwängler may be an actress, beauty, mother, doctor, wife of big-time publisher Hubert Burda… but there’s something about the way she behaves … And does Hillary Clinton actually have any feelings, or is it all about power for the U.S. Secretary of State, wife of a former president, and potential presidential candidate in 2016. And the list goes on.
American author and journalism professor Katie Roiphe, who wrote an essay entitled Elect Sister Frigidaire about the strange antipathy so many women feel for Hillary Clinton, suggests that we may like to imagine strong women but that we don’t actually like them. As much as women complain about the differences in salaries, support quotas, pay lip service to breaking the glass ceiling – when a woman actually makes it big, for many the reaction is not joy – far from it in fact – many women are downright miffed.
Instead of being inspired and motivated by the success of other women, it seems to be perceived as a direct attack on their own life and to provoke comments that cut the successful woman down to size.
The phenomenon is that much stronger if the standout woman is not only successful in her career, but is also a mother – and God forbid attractive as well! Any mother working full time who makes an effort with a group of full-time moms – maybe even brings a cake she baked – knows the feeling, and how hard it is to smile through the dire looks all the moms are exchanging about her.
Sisters doing it for themselves
But successful women also produce the opposite reaction: women who have "made it" are admired by other women simply because they are women. A bit the way Barack Obama can count on the votes of many non-white Americans simply because of his skin color, many women in Germany vote for Angela Merkel – even if they belong to another party – because they are so impressed that she, a woman, has "made it."
Men and women behave very differently when it comes to recognizing status and hierarchy. Gender researchers say that men have no problem with pecking orders, whether it’s on the soccer field on in the boardroom. They recognize the top dog, who occupies second and third place, without envy (mostly) and everything about their seating and speaking order at meetings, body language, status symbols, bear witness to this. That doesn’t mean of course that they won’t compete for better positions. And they usually do this by emulating the top man and copying his strategies. And when they make it to the top, they see no reason to play that down.
Research has revealed that females react very differently. They do tend to play themselves down to bring everybody together: their goal is integration, not competition. Among little girls, any girl who stands out because she is smarter, funnier or prettier is anything but admired by the others. Grown women in professional life have learned that hiding their qualities just so other women will like them damages them, but the net result is: they are not liked. Solidarity ends there.
How much further would women be today if they hadn’t been asking the wrong questions. Instead of fighting for equal pay, day care, fairer distribution of household chores, for years the women’s movement was hung up on issues like whether or not feminists could like men, wear plunging necklines, or choose to stay home with the kids. And such debates continue. France’s former first lady Carla Bruni found herself in the middle of a controversy on the Internet because she said in a recent interview that she wasn’t a feminist because she enjoyed family life too much.
We women need to learn to speak well of other women and support each other. Instead of getting worked up about Marissa Mayer, we need to acknowledge the differing contributions of all women. The super women aren’t spared the sleepless nights, the secret worries, and all the rest of it – they’re probably just be better at not letting such things overwhelm them – at facing life with a certain amount of composure.
More composure with regard to ourselves and other women would do us a world of good.