Is Ellen Pompeo Right About How We React To Successful Women?

Photo: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images.
Grey’s Anatomy’s Ellen Pompeo is indisputably killing the game. She stars as the title character of a wildly successful, long-running TV show (there is no Grey’s without Meredith Grey), and in 2017 became the highest paid actress on dramatic television, earning upwards of $20 million (£15 million) per year.
But being on top can sometimes be isolating and difficult, especially as a woman breaking into male-driven spaces like Hollywood and television. The future of TV might be female, but it’s an uphill battle getting there — and few people know this better than Pompeo herself.
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In keeping with her track record of talking candidly about her workplace experiences, Pompeo spoke to Entertainment Weekly about some challenges she has faced in the wake of her success. Even after negotiating wage gaps and advocating for herself, she says one of the more surprising things she’s observed is the lukewarm reception she’s received from other women.
“We still have a really long way to go with respect to women supporting women. I think it’s still more rare to have women support women when you’re on top,” Pompeo told EW. “When there’s a victim situation and other women can come in like, ‘Let me help you,’ they can be empowered because they’re helping someone who’s down. It’s still more challenging to get women to support you when you’re actually on top and doing fantastic.”
The notion sounds paradoxical — why wouldn’t women support each other in the workplace? But perhaps Pompeo’s encounters are informed by an inequity that goes deeper than women making 80 cents on the dollar.
Sexist attitudes in the workplace are projected and internalised by everyone. When it comes to professional leadership, both men and women often expect men to be in charge. Women, especially women of colour, frequently face difficulty in being seen as leaders, and many times there’s a false perception that a single instance of representation is the same thing as real workplace equality.
That status quo is often implicitly (or even explicitly) enforced by women who are reacting to a toxic, marginalising workplace culture. With little to no role models in leadership, few opportunities for advancement, and a pressure to be exemplary, women operate in competitive environments that pit us against each other. Similarly, women aren’t encouraged to talk about things like salary and professional ambitions, and many of us face a professional catch-22: if we do make ourselves heard, we’re afraid of being seen as either too successful or not successful enough.
Pompeo is careful to note that she had the security of more than a decade of Grey’s under her belt when she went to lobby on her own behalf, and there’s no doubt she earned her success. But her experience underscores the reality that women are too often forced to turn against each other and duke it out for a few precious seats at the top — when the real solution is making more room at the table for all of us.
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