The day I stopped putting other women down

It's funny how much more successful you become once you stop feeling bitter

Last week, I was so struck by a quote in the Telegraph’s interview with London Grammar frontwoman Hannah Reid that I immediately wrote it down. 

Reid, who was discussing her experiences of sexism within the music industry, said: “There’s a kind of hostility that can be invisible, and you can’t really stand up to it, because you can’t prove it. It’s a very subtle thing, but if you have those small experiences often enough, it does corrode you away. By the end I felt I had completely broken down.”

For some people this quote may seem unremarkable – particularly compared to some of the more shocking experiences female musicians have suffered, from financial exploitation to sexual assault. And I have no doubt that sadly many women might even consider themselves lucky if their experiences of sexism consisted merely of “subtle” hostility – aggressions so micro they would struggle to define them. 

But for me, Reid’s description of day-to-day misogyny and the residual powerlessness it leaves with women felt so devastatingly accurate it was a relief to see the words on the page. I’d never been able to describe the erosion so many women must feel in male-dominated environments such as the music industry, where misogyny is not a clearly drawn beast you can easily pull the trigger at but like a million little splinters you don’t even know are there.

When I was growing up at an all girls’ school, misogyny was usually clear-cut: an older man shouting “slut” as you walked past on the street, unwanted groping, and unsolicited sexual fantasies sent by middle-aged strangers on Facebook. It was disgusting but identifiable, something you could easily relay to a friend and watch her face screw up in shock. 

At university, where educated male arrogance and entitlement took more sinister forms, things became trickier. Was that comment calling me stupid real or just a joke? It must be a joke, because the other three boys in the room laughed when he said it. Is it normal for one of my good male friends to keep touching me inappropriately? I guess it must also be a joke because he laughs when he does it. Those rape chants we hear in the bar – some of the girls are laughing, so that’s just a joke too. 

At various workplaces across advertising and publishing in which it wasn’t unusual to be one of just two or three women on a 20-strong team, things became more complicated still. While the jokes remained roughly the same as before, I could often sense different emotions behind them: immaturity replaced with anger, resentment, and hostility. 

The better my work was, and the more confident I became, the more acute the hostility, which would play out in the form of constant put-downs, small ridicules and humiliations. Why was I being asked to go to the post room when a far more junior, and younger, male colleague sat right next to me? Why was I the only person on the team not invited to a crucial meeting? Why was my appearance such a frequent topic of conversation? Why were there sniggers when I spoke?

After leaving some professional environments, I would go home feeling inexplicably hated, unable to tell my friends why because it was all so bound up in a look, a tone of voice, a word, a silence, or a laugh. In silo they bounce off you, minuscule and forgotten, but when they happen monthly, daily, hourly, often all at once, they land one on top of the other to create something insurmountable. To try and express these invisible attacks out loud, however, made me sound like I was imagining things, overthinking things, reading into things. I focussed instead on the explicit misogyny I, alongside all women, continued to receive from strangers: so much worse on paper, but so much less corrosive, to me.

A professional desire to please and excel naturally becomes tied up to a need to assimilate; to stop being the odd one out. After a while, I realised I had begun to internalise the negativity that came my way, and then, eventually, to replicate it. I too was bitter, angry, resentful and hostile, fiercely protective of the tiny space I had managed to carve out for myself, that could be taken away at any moment. I saw other women not as allies but as threats.

The most shameful moments of my career are ones in which I have denigrated other young women, sniping at their ideas in rooms full of men, barely realising I am doing it until I see the blushing, stammering face staring back at me, and I am so full of self-loathing I don’t speak again for the rest of the day.

It wasn’t until I got my first female manager that I stopped mimicking this kind of toxic behaviour. At first, I found her strangely alien. She was young, ultra-successful and intelligent, sharp, funny, and feminine – qualities I thought women could not have at the same time, or at least in public – yet admired and liked by the men around her. Even more bizarre, she seemed utterly supportive of my existence, celebrating my ideas in front of others, praising my writing, sharing her perks of festival tickets and party invites, with seemingly no hidden agenda.  

The turning point, so to speak, was when I found myself butting unnecessarily against one of her ideas in a meeting. Her look was not of embarrassment but of complete confusion: why? Weren't we on the same side?

That evening, unable to stop thinking about the meeting, I wrote her an email to apologise – which she accepted graciously. It remains one of the most formative experiences of my career, and I dread to think what kind of manager and mentor I would have become without it – you cannot lead or inspire by putting other people down. Come to think of it, my manager’s manager was also female and similarly strong, generous and uplifting. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to work in a brilliantly gender diverse and supportive team – led by a woman – in which there is no hostility whatsoever.

It’s funny how much more successful you feel when you stop feeling bitter. Once I started celebrating other women instead of comparing myself to them, I noticed they began to celebrate me too. Rather than losing opportunities to ‘rival women’, more started coming my way. Women were recommending me for things, and sharing my work. Most importantly, they were building up the self-confidence that had previously worn away. 

It’s why I started Pass The Aux: to celebrate other women and to promote their work, while building up their confidence, too. Last weekend this came back around, with Pandora Sykes including Pass the Aux in a piece on her favourite newsletters in the Sunday Times Style – an amazing surprise that had me beaming for at least eight hours straight. It turns out she had come across my newsletter after a lovely female friend had recommended it to her. Both Pandora and her former High Low co-host Dolly Alderton have always gone out of their way to support the work of other women – it speaks volumes that they are perhaps the two most successful female journalists in the UK. 

To experience hostility from somebody else is horrible. But I have found carrying hostility to be even more damaging. Perhaps there is a lesson for some men in there somewhere, too.

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Have you had similar experiences? Want to chat or have an idea for my next post? I always love to hear from you! Reach me on eleanorahalls@gmail.com

This week in links

I’ve been reading: Rhian Jones on how the music industry finally woke up to mental health. The big three labels have now all put in place preventive support programs for artists as well as funding for therapy and rehab, which is essential if we want to stop this terrible pattern of musicians passing away long before their time. Read it here.

I’ve been creating: another episode of my music podcast Straight Up, this time with the music queen Maya Jama, who is one of the most hard-working, positive and thoroughly inspiring women I know. She talked all about imposter syndrome, and creepy DMs from musicians. Listen to the episode here.

I’ve been commissioning: Nick Ruskell on the tragedy of musicians losing their hearing, pegged to Riz Ahmed’s brilliant new film Sound of Metal, where he plays a rocker who loses his. It’s out on Amazon Prime now. Read the piece here.

I’ve been listening: to Dave’s new song Mercury with 18-year-old London RnB wizard Kamal (who I actually interviewed last year). In the song Dave talks about the pressures of fame and success, and having suffered a panic attack at Merky festival when a camera flash went off. Though it’s sad to hear of Dave’s pain, it’s great to see men being more open about their mental health.

Ps: If you’re looking for a mentor to help you navigate career hurdles like my own, then check out the just-opened mentorship scheme from I Like Networking, a new networking/mentoring platform created for and by women and non-binary people in the creative industries.