AT the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, the Norwegian cross-country skier Therese Johaug was vying for her first individual gold medal. Fresh off a world championship in the 10-kilometer race, she was now competing in the 30-kilometer. More than a grueling hour later, Ms. Johaug landed the silver, finishing less than three seconds behind the gold medalist — her training partner, Marit Bjorgen.
The two Norwegians are the top two female cross-country skiers in the world and fierce competitors. Instead of being bitter rivals, they are best friends.
Ms. Bjorgen, 36, has been the reigning queen for more than a decade. When Ms. Johaug burst onto the scene, a wunderkind eight years younger threatening to unseat her, Ms. Bjorgen took her under her wing.
“She has given me an incredible amount of confidence,” Ms. Johaug said, “and because she has done that I have become the cross-country skier I am.” When Ms. Bjorgen announced last year that she was pregnant, Ms. Johaug joked that she was prepared to be the baby’s “spare aunt.”
This is an extreme example of something that happens every day: women helping one another, professionally and personally. Yet the popular idea is that women are not supportive of other women. At school, we call them “mean girls” and later, we call them “catty” or “queen bees.” (What’s the derogatory male equivalent? It doesn’t exist.)
The biggest enemy of women, we’re warned, is a powerful woman. Queen bees refuse to help other women. If you approach one for advice, instead of opening a door, she’ll shut the door before you can even get your foot in. We’ve often heard women lower their voices and confess, “It hurts me to say this, but the worst boss I ever had was a woman.”
But statistically that isn’t true.
It’s time to stop punishing women and minorities for promoting diversity. In the meantime, there are many ways that women can help one another without hurting themselves. There’s no penalty for women mentoring women — and when they do, they’re more likely to be seen by their protégés as role models. They share advice about how to break glass ceilings and escape sticky floors, which helps the group and costs them nothing but time. When a woman’s accomplishments are overlooked, other women can celebrate them, showing that they care and giving public credit where it’s due.