The Cat Fight Myth

My #1 pet peeve is the “women don’t support one another” myth that gets thrown around all too often and by men and women alike.

First off, let me agree that there ARE some awfully insecure men AND women who will talk behind one another’s backs to make life more difficult. My advice, avoid them, but don’t jump to conclusions about an entire gender because of one nasty person. (My mother always taught me, “If someone is talking nasty about someone else to you, he or she will probably talk nasty about you to someone else.”)

But the myth that women are unsupportive of one another and, even worse, that we are catty, petty and jealous of one another’s success has not been my experience and tends to only serve to create distrust between women that perpetuates the myth itself. The worst part is that I used to believe the myth until I actually experienced the opposite. I thought women who were good friends and supportive were the exception rather than the norm…until I realized I was just experiencing the wrong sample size.

My first year of university was eye-opening. I was encouraged by a friend to attend Club Days, an expo of all of the clubs to join on campus. Somehow I ended up talking with a group of women from a sorority. I was skeptical. But four years later, I am glad I took the leap. This amazing group taught me that women aren’t catty at all. Yes, we can get emotional and hurt and fight with one another, but we watched the same emotional blow ups with the fraternity guys we knew.

Over the years, I’ve noticed something. When I’ve approached male-dominated spaces: work environments, clubs, etc and there are only a few women present, some of them DID greet me with skepticism. But there is a reason for this. The myth of the cat fight exists strongly in these environments. It’s the strangest thing. It’s like a woman is greeted into this world with:

“Welcome to the boys club! Beware of the women you see. They will not like your appointment here.”

This immediately creates a false competition between the few women in the group, however, it’s super easy to disarm. Instantly, I sidle up to the few women in the room and make friends. It takes a few days, but  once you win one another’s trust, you become a force to deal with in the group.

Personally, I believe that’s why the myth soldiers on…to keep us from talking. ;)

With Marissa Mayer’s recent appointment as CEO of Yahoo!, there have been a few references made to this idea that women are jealous of one another’s success. First with Owen Thomas who takes a HUGE leap of assumption to pit Sheryl Sandberg and Mayer against one another in competition. Sandberg was obviously feeling the burn of competition because it took her a whole 5 or 6 hours to post a congratulatory note on her Facebook wall (couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that Sandberg is a very busy executive and now board member of one of the biggest companies in the Valley). Then today with Michael Arrington who takes another leap of assumption that women in technology aren’t supportive of Marissa’s appointment because we haven’t appeared on a talk radio show defending Yahoo!’s decision to hire a pregnant CEO. I’m pretty sure most of us avoid listening to inflammatory talk shows and don’t think bringing ourselves to that level is worth the energy, but there have been oodles of great articles written by women in support of Yahoo! and her own decision. And within discussion groups I’m part of, there has been an outpouring of hope and elation from women in tech who believe Mayer’s appointment is going to be a boon for all of us.

But that wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this. Quite subtly, I’ve heard this in other contexts recently from leaders like Thomas and Arrington. I watched VC, Charlie O’Donnell perpetuate this myth on stage at a Fashion:Tech conference. And one of my favorite supporters of women, Dave McClure called out women for to invest in women implying that women with the dollars to invest aren’t supporting women in tech even though us women know of a couple of strong examples where this is actively happening. And I know all of these guys (Thomas, Arrington, O’Donnell and McClure) mean well and they want to help, but they should know that this is not helping, it’s perpetuating a very negative stereotype. Yes, we need to step up even more as women, but we aren’t the ones creating the rifts.

I’ve been a ‘woman in tech’ now for many years. In 2005 as I entered the scene, I was welcomed into the group with open arms…only…I was warned about the women who were already present. Lucky for me, I already knew that this was code for “Don’t gather and upset the balance,” so I ignored the warnings. Yes, there were one or two women who proved to be very unsupportive of other women, but they were in the minority. I actually found that the women I befriended bent over backwards to help me and my career much more than most of my male colleagues (there were a few of those who I’d deem as ‘catty and petty’).

Today, I count HUNDREDS of amazing, smart, supportive, kickass women as my closest friends and allies in the tech scene. When I need a place to stay, 9 out of 10x, it’s the women who offer. When I’ve asked for help with spreading the word on my projects, more often than not, it’s the women who are quick with a tweet or an introduction. Men are wonderful at the five-minute-favor, but I get the full-on-drop-everything-and-listen-then-help from my girls.

My experience is opposite of those who believe women are catty, backstabbing, petty, jealous beotches who want the title of token women all to themselves. I have hundreds of women I fraternize with daily who would back me up on this one. When I see another woman, I’m relieved and feel way more comfortable in a space, not threatened. I’m sure my girls would all agree they feel the same.

So please, men AND women, stop perpetuating this negative stereotype. It isn’t universal truth and it acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy for those who don’t know any better. Bias hurts all of us.


[p.s. it’s been suggested that the cat fight myth is less of a ‘keep women from gathering’ conspiracy and more likely to be fodder for male fantasy. I google image searched ‘Woman Cat Fight’ and think there may be something to that theory. It seems we need to be topless to battle one another. Seinfeld and Kramer agree.]

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Categories: featured, personal

Author:Tara Hunt

Strategist. Researcher. Interdisciplinarian. Founder, Lime Foundry + Buyosphere. Author, The Whuffie Factor. Speaker. Mother. Karaoke lover.


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11 Comments on “The Cat Fight Myth”

  1. July 23, 2012 at 17:14 #

    Great post, Tara! It’s a myth you bust daily with your constant help and support to other women entrepreneurs. thank you and YOU GO GIRL!!

  2. July 23, 2012 at 17:23 #

    I couldn’t agree more! 99% of women are super supportive and not at all catty, it is the 1% that give us a bad name. At the same time, men aren’t 100% supportive of each other all the time, but when they are competitive it’s just normal, not a problem with their gender.

  3. July 23, 2012 at 17:52 #

    superb to see another woman take this issue on so eloquently. Really appreciate the time you took to say these words and respond to these silly muck raking posts. I agree with you 100%.

  4. July 23, 2012 at 18:00 #

    Tara, you’re bundling together two very distinct notions (that also get bundled together in the media): 1) Women are unsupportive of one another; and 2) Women are catty, petty and jealous of one another’s success. #2 is incorrect, period, and your experience, as well as my own and I’m sure many of your readers, can substantiate that. But there’s merit to #1 that we need to examine and address. Only when we separate the ‘media narrative’ of cattiness from the real-world experience of women who — whether consciously or unconsciously — protect their own seat at the table, can we really have an honest conversation.

  5. erinnewkirk
    July 23, 2012 at 18:37 #

    Tara, +1. Then again, can’t see a time when I wouldn’t support you because you are {a} awesome and {b} so supportive of others.

    p.s. When I read these ‘women are each other’s worst enemy’ posts by men, another stereotype comes to mind. You know…the one about what men do when they are intimidated by strong, smart, successful women…

  6. July 23, 2012 at 19:33 #

    I love this post. I will say I see different levels of support depending on the channel/segment/area… some more some less some awesome some not… but in general you are so right. Especially about the self-fulfilling prophesy part.

  7. July 23, 2012 at 19:39 #

    thanks for this great post, tara. I couldn’t agree more, and I want to personally thank you for standing up as an example to me as I’m coming up in the tech world myself as a woman who made me feel smart, important, included, and represents someone I’d like to emulate. xx

  8. July 23, 2012 at 20:09 #

    Women en mass can often possess a collective insecurity and then is often used by men to illustrate that we cant be trusted, are way too emotional and that we are catty. I have personally seen men behave so badly and two-faced they make
    catty seem like its a compliment.
    What I will say is that women in so many arenas have been disarmed and silenced so often and by so many. That it is no wonder they use the only weapons left to them against their feminine rivals for attention, claws and tongue.

    Keep up the excellent writing, I’ve been following your blogs for quite some years now , and all the best with Buyosphere ;)

  9. July 24, 2012 at 00:24 #

    I think there’s something to both thoughts, ie, they DON’T want us to gather, AND they’d love to see us pull each others’ hair while scantily clad and possibly well-oiled. ;-)

    My first thought (and second, and third) when I read about Marissa’s appointment was WAHOOOOO! My esteem for Yahoo went up several notches, and I firmly believe they finally found the person who has what it takes to turn their big ole’ boat around.

    So long as we don’t let myths define and derail us, it’s all good.

  10. July 24, 2012 at 01:54 #

    It took me a very long time to realize that I was ‘battling for the girl seat at the table’ when I should’ve just rejected the idea that there was only *one* seat for a woman.
    What opened my eyes was meeting women like you, Tara, and others over the past few decades who did reject the notion and either stated outright that the notion we needed to fight for limited opportunities or inclusion, or started their own ‘tables’ and invited me to sit down.
    I’m thrilled for Marissa.
    I also think we need to redefine the word “catty” – the behavior in cats isn’t gender specific. Tomcats are just as likely to hiss, spit, and get territorial as any female kitty. It’s odd that the term is solely applied to supposedly petty and unsupportive women.

    p.s. I just love this post… My favorite thing I’ve read in awhile!

  11. July 24, 2012 at 11:11 #

    Very good article indeed. I’ve had similar experiences after moving to a new country where more experienced and well connected women in particular supported me with their knowledge and contacts.


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