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15 November 1999

Why women aren’t sisters at the office

When two high-flying females lunch together they don't drink wine. Carol Sarler explains why

By Carol Sarler

Amanda Platell, head honcha of spin at the beleaguered Conservative head office, is about to descend on the bookstalls with Scandal, the novel she wrote during and about her previous incarnation as a newspaper executive. In the best style of her new trade, its release has been tantalising: little nuggets carefully thrown just far enough for us to know that the story is one of a good gal editor (not at all dissimilar from Miss Platell) and her rivalry with a bad gal editor (hints of bints abound – Eve Pollard? Bridget Rowe? Rosie Boycott?).

But even as they speculate, what appears to have startled the privileged few who have seen an advance copy is that Scandal is no feminist tract. Indeed, they tell us, and not to put too fine a point on it, it’s pure bloody bitch. If this book is to be believed, they say, women at work are not at all nice to each other. If these critics are to be believed, then I say Amanda Platell deserves a medal just for telling the truth.

Like Platell, I only have direct experience of the various industries within the communications media, so I suppose it is just about possible that in the world of, say, science, women are cuddle-bunnies with each other. But I doubt it. Because the clearest lesson learnt in the past quarter of a century is that the concept of “sisterhood” was the most ludicrous of the pups we were sold from the feminist litter. Women don’t support each other, most especially in the upper echelons of the workplace. Broadly speaking, they hate each other.

Oh, they cover it up well enough. They form their excruciating trade organisations – Women in Journalism, for instance – which, they will swear on their nail polish, exist so that they can network and help each other. In fact, they have a thoroughly good time boasting about their own achievements, spying on their rivals and patronising the younger idiots daft enough to believe the manifesto.

Just watch, if you will, two female colleagues taking lunch together; that lunch they have been whinnying about loudly for weeks, that lunch where they can “catch up on all the girl-talk”. Each of them, lunching with a man, would enjoy sharing a bottle of good wine. But at this lunch they will stick firmly to the fizzy water – not, as you might glibly think, because they are watching their weight but because they are watching their tongues. Wary control and winner takes all.

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There is nothing new about the manipulative ferocity of women. The survival of the species has depended upon it. This might be why the worst (or best) bitches are the middle-aged daughters of the stay-at-home mothers of the generation before them. They learnt at their mother’s knee that praise is heaped upon the woman who will stop at nothing to protect her own: “Aah,” was the admiring cry in those days, “she’s such a Mother Tiger.”

Did anyone really think that there would be fewer teeth and claws called into play when what a woman had to protect and nurture was not her baby, but her job?

Indeed, nobody much minded when the enemy of aspiring Woman was Man. It was pretty much taken for granted that in order to tackle the inherent sexism of the workplace, women could not win by the male rules; they would have to make their own. Move a few goalposts, as it were. My personal favourite was the pre-menstrual syndrome scam: “You don’t understand how dreadful I feel,” Woman would wail to Moon and Man until, finally, Man caught on that Woman was bonkers for a quarter of her working month and he should – with great sympathy, naturally – treat her as such. Then she had him: “How dare you treat me differently from the men?” she would rage.

That was an early victory which would define the battleground for years to follow. Women demanded – and got – the right to behave as irrationally as would suit their day. I remember the Sunday Times section editor who sacked her third consecutive sub-editor while stamping her foot and screaming: “I always said I couldn’t work with Capricorns.” I remember, too, the hugely ambitious beauty editor I once worked with, who arrived at work, in November, in a bikini top . . . and then made a complaint that “the sexist pig of a doorman stared at me”.

These women won. The simple, linear male mind stood no chance. So Man opened the door to the boardroom and in walked Woman, chin up against the line of men . . . but hang on, what’s this she sees at the far end of that long table? Well knock her down with a mascara wand if it isn’t another woman!

The horror of it slowly dawns. The only way that other woman could possibly have got to that seat is the same way that she did. Which means that there is someone who knows all the same tricks, all the same manoeuvres, and who will be just as relentless and ruthless as she is.

The men, who used to be the enemy, are a piece of cake by comparison – for this, surely, is an enemy worthy of the name. And the tactics start at once. “Hello,” she smiles over her extended, duplicitous hand. “How nice to see another woman here. We must have lunch; catch up on all the girl-talk . . . “

Me, I’m long through with the air- kissing. If you don’t like ’em, then all that is really required is the bare civility that keeps the working wheels in motion. If you do like them, it’s probably because you have never either competed or worked together; a set of conditions that applies, incidentally, between myself and Amanda Platell, whom I like very much.

And for what it’s worth: on the couple of occasions when we have had lunch – we drank the wine.

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