“Do you view her as competition?”
I was asked this a few months ago with regard to my second mate, and I was caught off guard. Not because I could ostensibly feel that way about another woman on the boat (I might have felt that way years ago, before I decided to stop feeling that way), but because someone would want to know if it was true; not only that: they expected it to be true. Do women who work in a field dominated by men sometimes feel threatened by other women arriving on the scene? Yes, it happens, more than I care to admit. It may be residual of the tokenism of a bygone era, the sentiment that women are such a rarity that the guys should only really be expected to handle one at a time, that she’s the ship’s “mascot”, not a legitimate team member. Such a view is ludicrous in this day and age, but I still see it happening from time to time.
I’ve seen a lot of men in the maritime industry encourage Queen Bee behavior. Let’s face it: people (especially sailors) love a catfight. Drama is entertaining, it makes things interesting. It’s no fun when everyone is happy and getting along. It seems to me that people aren’t comfortable with the idea of women who work together in a male-dominated workplace actually liking each other. It makes more sense to them to see us battling amongst ourselves for status, rather than advocating for each other. In turn, this historically has led to women internalizing their perceived inferiority and feeling pressured to cast a shadow over the other women in their workplace; to feel threatened by others’ success – as if it somehow diminishes their own – to sabotage others in order to protect their “territory” or their unique status as the lone woman of the group, one of the guys, because those traits are somehow more valuable to society. I’ve witnessed women bad-mouthing other women in the workplace, echoing the sexist beliefs of the men in the room to gain legitimacy.
I reject this behavior.
I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In the same month it was released. It quickly became my reference for navigating just about everything career-related, and put into words so many things I had seen and felt but hadn’t been able to articulate. One of the things I was introduced to was Queen Bee syndrome; the phenomenon that manifests itself when the presence of another woman in the room signals a threat or competition, rather than a friend or ally, and sets us up to work against each other for recognition or credibility. This is such a huge waste of our energy. I was shocked, and somewhat ashamed, when I read about this and realized it was true, and that I was perpetrating it. I knew those twinges of jealousy in the classroom when another girl came around and I was no longer the only one in a roomful of men. Did she steal my spotlight, my voice? Not really. But I was afraid she would. I was one of the boys, I was special. I didn’t want that to change. But when I finally realized how exhausting it was to maintain this stance, I started to understand how much better off I would be, how I could improve the lives of others, if I made the conscious decision to encourage and champion my peers, to offer them my support and guidance, rather than diminish them.
It’s changed my life for the better, and I encourage women and men in the industry all the time to recognize this behavior and try to change it. Valdez is a unique place, in that there is at least one woman on almost every boat in the Crowley fleet here. It’s a breath of fresh air to feel a sisterly kinship with the people I work with. This trend gives me hope that we can focus our energy on helping each other out, and I’m convinced we will all benefit as a result.