Our Own Worst Enemies? How Society Encourages Women To Undermine Themselves


Our Own Worst Enemies? – How Society Encourages Women To Undermine Themselves

Much has been made of the ways in which the structures of society work against women on a practical level. First [1] and second wave feminism concentrated their efforts largely upon bringing about practical change for women and evening things up on an opportunity-based level. However, despite all that our forbears have achieved in this matter, women are still viewed as second-class citizens in many respects. According to many more modern feminist thinkers [2], this is because of the more insidious ways in which society portrays women and their roles both to the world in general and, on in individual level, to women themselves. The idea that the way in which they think, act, and consume in relation to women has an impact upon the way in which women are treated is proving a tough pill to swallow for many men – but on a perhaps more troubling level, it also affects the way in which women themselves view themselves. Here are just two of the ways in which women, due largely to the ingrained lessons taught to them by society, self-sabotage.


Historically, guilt and shame have been used as a major method of control and oppression. Women have particularly suffered from this. Those who stepped outside of rigidly defined boundaries of gendered appearance and behaviour have been roundly rebuked, and expected to feel thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Guilt and shame are horribly effective methods of control as they encourage internal rather than external checks upon behaviour – the guilt becomes automatic, and the person thus begins to censor their own behaviour out of a genuine belief that they are correct to do so. Furthermore, when others encourage (explicitly or implicitly) women or anyone else to feel guilty about something, they do so from a societally-encouraged position which, again, believes that this is genuinely the correct reaction. It is done without undue malice and without actually thinking the implications of this through. Guilt, shame, and disgust become, in essence, ‘gut reactions’ [3]. Of course, this is not to say that women should never feel guilty about anything – but feeling guilty for behaving in ways which are considered normal and even routine for men is definitely not something we should be doing. Research has proven [4] that women apologise more often and for a wider variety of things than their male counterparts. Not only does this make them seem as though they lack confidence, it also reinforces the idea that women should not act as assertively (to name a typical example) and so on as their male counterparts. Guilt, and the impulse to apologise, is something we need to work on if we’re going to break the societal mould for women.


This one is linked a lot to guilt – but it frequently has more practical issues associated with it. Women, perhaps feeling guilty or ‘arrogant’ about giving themselves the credit that they’re due, routinely devalue themselves and their contribution to the world. Humility has historically been considered a prime female virtue, and the relic of that lives on in today’s ostensibly ‘equal’ society. Studies have consistently proven [5] that the tendency is for women to talk down their achievements, and to have trouble with describing themselves in positive terms in a manner which simply does not affect their male peers. When asked to choose their own payscale, women will almost inevitably go for a lower figure than men at the same (or even lower) career level would. Indeed, women consistently ascribe lower values to themselves than men do in every aspect of life – from talking up their own skills to taking out life-insurance [6]. This may in part explain the often-mentioned ‘pay gap’ – self-sabotage may contribute as much to this issue as more rigidly defined oppressive structures. This does not, however, let society off the hook, as it is society which tacitly encourages this kind of self-deprecation and personal devaluing on the part of women.

An End To Self-Sabotage

This kind of self-sabotage is perhaps one of the hardest gender barriers to break down. It comes from within ourselves and requires a good deal of courage, personal transformation, and fortitude to withstand the inevitable psychological storm which comes from performing guilt-inducing behaviours. Fighting the Patriarchy is one thing – but fighting the Patriarchy within yourself is quite another. However, this is something we all need to do not only for our own sakes but for the sakes of other women who are still holding themselves back. There are ways and means of getting rid of self-sabotaging practices [7] – but just being aware of them is a good first step!

[1] Wolverhampton Library, “First Wave Feminism in Europe”

[2] The Political Studies Association, “Feminism: A fourth wave?”

[3] Rebecca Holman, “Do women really have more to feel guilty about than men?”, The Telegraph, Nov 2013

[4] Radhika Sanghani, “The nine things women can’t stop saying ‘sorry’ for”, The Telegraph, Oct 2013

[5] Liat Clark, “Study: women undervalue themselves when working with men”,Wired, May 2013

[6] QZ, “Life Cover”

[7] Anita Chaudhuri, “You need to be more assertive. Read this article! Right now!”, The Guardian, Jan 2015

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