Lynne Spreen's Reviews > In the Company of Women: Indirect Aggression Among Women: Why We Hurt Each Other and How to Stop

In the Company of Women by Pat Heim
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Aug 24, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: self-improvement

I've spent my life denying it, but now that I'm older, I have to raise the white flag. Women can be backstabbers. Before you respond in horror, let me explain.

I just finished In the Company of Women - Indirect Aggression Among Women: Why We Hurt Each Other and How To Stop. If the authors weren't so experienced or lacked data, or if I didn't already sort of feel this in my bones, I might slam the book closed with a snort. But there's too much here to simply dismiss it. Here are some of the points made by the authors, Drs. Susan Murphy and Pat Heim.

The good news is that women are able to accomplish SO much together, and when they support each other, are unstoppable!

The bad news is, women are different from men, which means, they're different from what you think you know, because usually the researchers study men, especially in the workplace. Lots of us women try to act like men as we climb the corporate ladder, and that makes life even more difficult. We struggle and sometimes fail without knowing why. We're discouraged and confused, but if you find the work of Drs. Heim and Murphy believable, there's a logical reason for the difference, and while the authors have documented their assertions exhaustively, I think you can boil it down to this:

Men relate to each other hierarchically, whereas women relate to each other as peers.

Men form a team, fight for their positions in the hierarchy, and then settle in, happy to know where they fit. The leader may not be liked or even respected, but everybody accepts that he's in the driver's seat. If a guy decides to make a run for the top, there's bloodletting, but once he gets there, everybody settles down again. Think of male herd animals fighting for the right to mate and I think you'll get the idea.

But women! Women aspire to a horizontal structure. Think of, again, a herd of females. They guard each other. They eat together. In most species, their babies are born at the same time and defended collectively. I know we're not horses or antelope, but consider this: with very few exceptions, we like to think we're all equal. If a woman does something to rise above other women, or appears to think more highly of herself than is considered seemly, look out! The authors assert that, in the corporate setting, higher-level women have to make sure the lower-level women receive some kind of emotional or status-related compensation in order to maintain balance in the power relationship. Otherwise, they'll see her as too big for her britches and make sure she fails.

I would go into more detail, but there isn't enough space in this review. Below, I'll list the points I found amazing or profound, and you can let me know if you'd like me to elaborate on any of them.

*Women are somewhat more comfortable with a powerful woman who plays down her importance than one who does not.

*For a positive relationship to be possible between two women, the self-esteem and power of both must be approximately even. (There are exceptions, as in a mentoring relationship.) This is called the "Power Dead-Even Rule," and although it has profound impacts on all female relationships, is invisible to most women.

*The female stress response ("tend and befriend") results in the release of oxytocin, a calming chemical. In times of stress, women seek out other women with whom to commiserate, which is great for their mental health, but tends to get the team all riled up against the woman who caused the problem in the first place. Hence cliques and sabotage develop.

*The authors propound what they call "chip theory," in that individual women hold a certain number of chips (positive attributes or actions). Beauty is a chip. Wealth is a chip. A high-level career is a chip. Poise is a chip. A great husband is a chip, as are teenagers who don't steal cars or get drunk in public. Chips are constantly exchanged with others to maintain even stature between women, and we do this naturally. If you get a compliment, chances are you'll put yourself down in response, so as to keep the complimenter feeling good, too. That's chip management, and it's the strategy we use, consciously or not, to adhere to the Power Dead-Even Rule.

*The authors, who have trained over 20,000 people in Fortune 500 companies, say they often hear frustration from upwardly-mobile women who "don't have time for such foolishness." The authors respond: you can pay now or you can pay later, and later is when you might lose control over the situation. Women have been fired for failure to succeed, and often, nobody can figure out why! But the "why" is that they were pulled under and drowned because they didn't understand what their sisters needed.

Most women care deeply about other women. We are all in this together. Without women in our lives, we feel lonely and incomplete, but nearly every one of us bears the scars of being attacked by other women, sometimes en masse, and we were disillusioned and discouraged over it.

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.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
August 12, 2012 – Finished Reading
August 24, 2012 – Shelved
April 28, 2013 – Shelved as: self-improvement

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Rohini (new)

Rohini Rathour What a fantastic review! I have not read the book yet but you have made me want to read it right away. Thank you.

Lynne Spreen Rohini wrote: "What a fantastic review! I have not read the book yet but you have made me want to read it right away. Thank you."Thank YOU, Rohini. After reading it, I finally felt as if I understood my gender. We're so complicated; I would definitely tell any young woman I was mentoring that this book is required reading.

message 3: by Rohini (last edited Sep 26, 2016 05:51AM) (new)

Rohini Rathour I know exactly what you mean. As women we have all experienced it but I loved how you articulated it so it just made so much sense. It also explains why women working in male dominated environments behave differently to those in female dominated ones. You are right, this is a must-read for my teenage daughter so she may navigate her way through this world with greater understanding and sensitivity as she grows up.

Lynne Spreen This quote, which I appropriated, was from the authors: "Most women care deeply about other women. Without women in our lives, we feel lonely and incomplete. We want to work together. We want each other to succeed. When we support each other, we’re unstoppable." I loved that. Best wishes, Rohini.

message 5: by Rohini (new)

Rohini Rathour Love it, Lynne. Warm regards and best wishes to you too.

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