The "Girl Code" - my theory.

With the #metoo movement, and the focus on gender equality, never has female empowerment been so prevalent.

Women are now openly discussing that we are undervalued and underpaid (believe me, I am not saying I don’t support these things – as a survivor of sexual abuse, rape, and domestic violence, I totally support safety, equality, and respect - for EVERYONE).

Yet, I am repeatedly finding that women are behaving in ways which are disrespectful, unprofessional, and blatantly cruel to other women.

Many of the females within my networks seem to be at the receiving end of a women’s scorn; other females attacking, belittling, defaming, or betraying them.

· All-female networking groups outlining that you can only be a member of their group and not another networking group.

· Females giving untruthful, negative feedback on the social media business pages of other women.

· Women making nasty, judgemental comments about other women’s appearances, life, or business choices.

We are protesting about how toxic masculinity is impacting us, but what about what we are doing to ourselves?

In watching channel 9’s “Married at first sight” these past few weeks (purely for the psychological perspective, of course), it really highlighted the following for me: even when both a male and a female have done something wrong, it is the females who receive the fiercest condemnation for their behaviour.

In addition, and what I find incredibly striking, is how the other women in the group treat the ill-behaved females; it appears as though women hold other women to a higher standard – a different “code of conduct” than what is expected of men.

I know that all of this isn’t anything new, however, it really got me thinking; why do women hold other women to such a rigid standard, and why are they so unforgiving toward each other if that standard is not met?


Humans have learned to adapt to threat and danger using several protective mechanisms; most notably, fight or flight. Dr Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory (with the help of Deb Dana) has demonstrated how we may subconsciously enact another, more primitive survival mechanism in the face of danger, which is to “play dead” (immobilise).

These are well known explanations of how our bodies and minds react to stress (stress includes threat of danger, be it real or perceived). However, there is another theory which aims to explain how and why females, in particular, may respond to stress via a different mechanism; it is called the “Tend and Befriend” theory.

Taylor, Klein, Lewis, Gruenewald, Gurung, and Updegraff (2000), described the “tend and befriend” female-stress-response as the propensity for women to take care of their offspring (tend) and to form strong, female alliances (befriend) in times of stress.

Taylor et al. posited that females knew there was safety in numbers, and therefore, surrounded themselves with other women for protection. As a result of always being in groups, women formed tight-knit bonds, and relied upon each other for friendship, support, and protection.

Additionally, it was suggested that as women were mostly either attempting to conceive, already with child, or had dependent young, fighting or running would prove difficult, if not dangerous. For this reason, women had to find an alternative way to survive, other than physical confrontation, or trying to outrun any danger.


With that very basic, brief description of “tend and befriend” in mind, this is my theory as to why women get so butt-hurt by each other, and don’t seem to let that hurt go (I am sure this theory has most likely been posited in the past, I just can’t find the literature for it);

We are genetically conditioned to create strong, powerful alliances with other women. We do this for protection, support, and the relief of stress – this is why we girls seek out our besties (or mothers/sisters/aunts) when things are tough – we need the support of other women when we feel stressed.

Be it business stress, kid-related stress, partner-induced stress – whatever the cause, WOMEN ARE SUPPOSED TO HAVE EACH OTHER’S BACKS - PERIOD (no pun intended). It is clearly in our DNA to look to other women for comfort, encouragement, protection, and support; it’s one of our basic survival mechanisms.

When we perceive another female has wronged us in any way, perhaps we feel it is a desecration of that basic survival mechanism – the Girl Code?

Maybe, it’s a violation that runs much deeper; perhaps we feel hurt or betrayed from an evolutionary perspective – have we stopped valuing the girl code – and what might this mean for our survival? And as such, perhaps breaking the girl code is perceived as such a threat, because other women are supposed to be the very people we turn to for our safety and protection?

As a woman, if we can’t trust other women, who can we trust??

Essentially, my theory of why women react to each other in such awful ways is because to break the girl code signifies that you can’t be relied upon for support or protection; it is a betrayal that hits deep into the core of the premise of “female alliances” and it makes us question our safety on a primitive, unconscious level.

“You broke the girl code – you can no longer be trusted, and as such, you must be ousted!”

How this applies to business

There are so many amazing women out there who dedicate their lives to empowering, supporting, and protecting other women. They are selfless with their time, money, resources, and experiences. Their mission is to give all that they know to other women to help them become successful. As we all should.

We need to find healthier, respectful ways of dealing with each other, because currently, we are not setting the best example for the next generation.

Women are really starting to step into their power and take on more prominent roles in business; to do this, we all need to feel supported, and to be supportive in kind. How can we overcome the issues we face as women, if WE aren’t even supporting each other?

As women, we are programmed to become “tribes”, and form alliances – not enemies. That kindness, respect, and understanding are hallmarks of a good leader, not just fierceness, competitiveness, and strategy! And as female leaders, we need to demonstrate how much power there is in women working together.

It is OUR job as women in business, and as leaders, to set these examples. We hold the stage, ladies, let’s use it wisely.

Let’s show the next generation that girls can be strong, yet compassionate. We can be serious business women, and we still have heart. We can be hurt; however, we have self-respect and control in our responses. We can make mistakes, and yet we can show humility.

Let’s show the next round of entrepreneurs that as women, we really do have each other’s backs. When women support other women, amazing things happen.

Written by Kelly Brealey - Business Mindset Coach

Clinical Hypnotherapist, Psychotherapist, NLP practitioner

Source: PSYCHOLOGICAL REVIEW, 2000, vol. 107, No. 3, 411-429 (accessed 6thApril 2019 at