With a little help from my friends

I have always valued the unvarnished advice, stimulating conversations, joyous company and unwavering support of the wonderful female companions in my life. I count myself lucky to have, at every step of the way, been surrounded by strong, talented and inspiring women who have been my advisors and role models. From early childhood secrets to naïve adolescent endeavours and coming into our own as adults, the abundance of companionship and support has been invaluable. I seem to have the uncanny knack of finding myself in settings with unusually high numbers of women and so I was not particularly surprised to learn that, save the lone male representative, our group for six months was an interesting mix of women from around the globe.

In preparation for writing this, I found myself flipping through a memory bank of experiences that have moulded my beliefs and shaped my mind; what emerged was a steady pattern of influence from female peers, confidants and mentors and I began to reflect upon the lack of positive colloquy about and representation of vibrant and healthy female friendships.

Cultural notions of women’s friendships are often gender-specific. Female friendships imply either rivalry or gossip, male friendships suggest potential love interests; however, there ought to be nothing about a person’s gender that automatically determines what kind of friendship you have with him or her. In reality, alliances of goodwill and respect between women are common and foundational. The profound networks of support and intellectual as well as emotional companionship between women are often neglected, playing into the hopelessly old-fashioned yet persistent notion that women are more often foes than friends.

Female friendships, in particular, are reliant upon empathy. Women are prone to ‘tend and befriend’. In fact, research suggests that we respond to stress by protecting and nurturing others (tending), and by seeking support from others (befriending) as opposed to the primary male ‘fight or flight’ response. Studies have shown that there are medical benefits to female friendships- the likelihood of women developing physical impairments as they age is inversely proportional to the number of wholesome friendships they have. So strong is the link between health and friendship, that a study involving the survival rate of women with breast cancer shows increases for women who have a strong, supportive circle of friends. If such studies are anything to go by, we should consciously build and nurture these connections to preserve our physical and emotional well-being.

A major contributor to the skewed perception of female friendships is its rampant stereotyping in mainstream media and popular culture. Women are less likely to be shown as supportive team players, rather undermining each other in a bid to gain competitive advantage. Supportive partnerships between women are harder to find than similar portrayals of men. Another cliché is the misguided portrayal of women’s relationships with each other as frequently revolving around men and not their own fellowship, experiences and ideas. Be it the satirized portrayals of competition, jealousy, mistrust or slander, popular culture is rife with examples of ‘women in conflict’. Women who collaborate and mentor each other have a greater chance at success and this is especially true in typically male dominated settings. Indeed, it is this camaraderie and unity that has enabled us to challenge convention, disrupt systems and ‘break glass ceilings’. The disregard of female power and partnerships in society contributes to the lack of focus on the inherent capabilities of such connections. Encouragingly however, not all women buy-into this misrepresentation. Surely not all female friendships are evocative of a Tina Fey-Amy Poehler kinship, however, that should not reflect poorly on such alliances overall; it but reflects the infinite variety of human nature.

In my own experience, I have personally encountered far more supportive and nourishing female friendships than my fair share, as I have in these past months and can bear testament to the power of ‘girlfriendships’. To help foster a community of women who are personally and professionally vested in each other’s success, we must help other young women embrace the benefits of forging these strong ties and celebrate our wonderfully complex bonds