Feminist teachers and residents participate in a demonstration in Montevideo, Uruguay, on March 8, 2021 to commemorate International Women’s Day. (Photo: REUTERS / Mariana Greif)

Sisterhood is a solidarity between women to combat situations of discrimination, violence, and sexism.

It’s like an unwritten alliance or pact to fight for equality, support each other, give encouragement to those in need and defend the rights of everyone.

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Marcela Lagarde, the Mexican feminist, politician, and anthropologist who created the term femicide and popularized the concept of sisterhood in her text Pacto Entre Mujeres (Pact Between Women), says that sisterhood is an ethical, political, and practical dimension of contemporary feminism, whose practice can help with the social elimination of all forms of oppression and mutual support to achieve the vital empowerment of every woman.

In the competitive environments that women are working in every day, this principle has been falling behind. It’s easy to say it and recognize it publicly, but it’s complicated when it comes to applying it, perhaps due to ignorance or the culture of rivalry we were brought up in which can diminish that respect between equals.

Although competition and rivalries do exist, many women from different walks of life have decided to become allies.

We present some points where sisterhood in the workplace, academia, and the virtual space of social media can empower women.

Sisterhood in the workplace

Women got used to just being in front of their desks at work, keeping their heads down, and not looking at those around them if they needed something.

Different studies within companies have shown that the lack of sisterhood in a workplace can undermine productivity and reduce the possibilities for women to reach higher-ranking positions in organizations.

According to economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, this is because men are 46% more likely to have a higher-ranking advocate in the office, which makes a difference in representation as you go up the organizational chart.

According to the 2016 Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey, in companies where only one in 10 leaders are women, it notes that almost 50% of men felt that women were “well represented” in leadership because it appears that what we see is what we think is OK or “normal”.

Anne Welsh McNulty, co-founder and managing partner of JBK Partners, explains in her Harvard Business Review article, “Don’t Underestimate the Power of Women Supporting Each Other at Work”, that there is a phenomenon known as the “Queen Bee” syndrome, which is when some high-level women distance themselves from women in lower ranks, perhaps to be more accepted by their male peers.

Welsh McNulty says that, from her experience, you have to break down those barriers and cultivate conversations between women, as this has enormous benefits to achieve competitive work teams, avoid job desertion, and achieve better sales results.

There are other situations in which sisterhood becomes important, such as in the workplace, where it is about addressing sexual harassment and bullying. Civil organizations such as Recrea and Fundación Origen, which are dedicated to providing mentoring to support violence-free environments, recommend that female colleagues form protective networks.

The organizations point out that one way to avoid violence against women in the workplace is to interrupt a potential moment of harassment. For example, if you see another woman in such a situation, you can say, “Can you give me some paper?”, “Can I borrow your pen?”, or “Can you go to the bathroom with me?” These are ways to show sisterhood when someone is in a situation of harassment.

The important thing is to not tolerate sexist or degrading attitudes towards work colleagues, from either men or women.

In the event that the situation escalates, and a colleague is the victim of sexual harassment, other women shouldn’t discourage her from reporting it by saying things like, “don’t make problems” or “they will brand you as scandalous.” On the contrary, support and sisterhood play an important role if someone does decide to report it and raise their voice.

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Sisterhood at school

Just as it happens in work environments, in academia, where different political ideologies, thoughts and social classes converge, differences or rivalries between women are created, in order to reject the one who stands out for her qualifications or talent in the group, in an attempt to censor or make her feel that her ideas are worthless.

The first step in transforming the destructive dynamics that exist among many women is for us to start with ourselves.

According to the anthropologist Martha Lamas, in the document ‘Reflections between Colleagues and the Challenges of Reaching Political Agreements’, the first essential step to understanding how all of this cultural logic of competitiveness occurs is to start with a process of self-reflection.

The factors that fuel this dynamic of women destroying each other can also be reviewed, reflects the Mexican researcher as she talks about what can be done to avoid contributing to the conflict between peers that destroys and weakens them in the face of patriarchy.

She suggests that in order to move faster towards social equality with men, one can begin by identifying those “cultural mandates” which women have been socialized and raised on, but which no longer work. Lamas points out in her text that part of these existing disparities between women has a lot to do with inequality and social opportunities.

The Italian feminists of the Milan Women’s Bookstore argue that these rivalries “mask the effects of a paralyzing envy”. When someone is distinguished by their talent, creativity, effort, and audacity, it generates envy among their peers.

Often the woman who wants to stand out, or the one who proposes to be a leader in her field, separates herself from her group of colleagues, driven by rejection and aggression that awakens her ambition to distinguish herself. The others in the group may come to perceive her as a “leader” or a “traitor”.

Lamas argues that the pain of envy and rivalry doesn’t simply disappear, but there are ways to move forward to improve the treatment of women. For example, knowing how to work in a team, which implies many things:

  • Accept that you’re not alone and that there is interaction.
  • Accept that you are good at some things, but not at everything, and there are other players who also want to play.
  • Understand that teams need to have someone who coordinates them: a “captain”, but many conflicts between women arise specifically when one is “distinguished”.
  • Deal with envy and passive aggressiveness.
  • Channel the positive energies of the women who are members of a group, combining their knowledge. When this happens, it is called “synergy”.
    In social media
  • Although the internet has become a space for the expression of political ideas and for collective action, unfortunately, it has also become a place where violence against women and all kinds of actions that seek to damage their reputations have crept in. Another way to demonstrate sisterhood is via these spaces.
  • If a woman expresses something that has to do with public debate and is criticized for her physical appearance, the way she dresses, her socioeconomic status, ethnic group, etc., one way to create an environment of sisterhood is for another woman to send her messages of support on social media to back up her up following the attack.

This is to downplay the sexist or macho comments that another person uses in an attempt to demean them. The purpose is to shut down everything that does not contribute to the public debate.

It is worth mentioning that, in a report called “Toxic Twitter – A Toxic Place for Women”, Amnesty International discovered that women are more likely to be harassed and mistreated on this social network, with direct or indirect threats of physical or sexual violence and targeted discriminatory harassment regarding one or more aspects of a woman’s identity.

The women interviewed for the investigation indicated that in these spaces people feel driven to say things that they would not necessarily say in real life.

But not everything is bad. The Fourth Feminist Wave has been strengthened by social media and increased internet accessibility.

Through virtual groups, it has helped reinforce sisterhood, where experiences are shared, conversations are held about sexuality, reading clubs, art exhibitions, and there are even calls for marches or campaigns.

When the femicide of Ingrid Escamilla was reported, sisterhood made its presence felt. Through the internet, explicit images were circulated of her body in the hands of her ex-partner. Women countered the effect of the police images that were leaked in the media and consequently on social media, by uploading photos of landscapes, cute pets, or beautiful illustrations of her face. It was thanks to a movement started by Twitter users that the algorithm was beaten to prevent photographs of her body coming up when people searched for her name.

Another moment of sisterhood that occurred on social media was in the case of the ‘Me Too’ movement, which became one of the most significant digital mobilizations in recent years. It arose against film producer Harvey Weinstein for cases of harassment against actresses and models.

It was then taken up in Mexico with Me Too Mexicano, Me Too de Periodistas, and Mi Primer Acoso and the most recent case of writer Andrés Roemer, which reached 61 complaints of sexual harassment. These have been movements where women took the first step and encouraged others to report these cases, which managed to break the barrier of fear and create an environment of digital sisterhood.

The power of women together, whether at work, school, or on social media, has helped them to be empowered and regain the spaces where they haven’t been receiving equal treatment.