Skip to content

The Tale of the Cupcake Lady

– A Women’s Month Memoir

A year ago, I wrote a poem called To the Women I Know. This year, I thought I’d explore some of the themes in the poem in the hopes that it inspires women to challenge the way they treat each other and themselves

As women, I think we’ve come an incredibly long way. We no longer have to convince the world why we should drive, vote, or be educated. While I’m grateful to live in a time where women’s contribution to economies and societies are valued, I think we have a way to go. The next challenge we face is the battle we have with other women and within ourselves.

The Other Side of Women

There’s another side of women that only women experience. And while this does not apply to all women, we see it often enough.  We see it when women want us to follow their Instagram pages – but hesitate when we ask them to follow back. We see it when women undermine mothers on raising kids, looking to find faults. We see it when women withholdwork opportunities, hoping their subordinates won’t surpass them. We see it when women leaders refuse to share knowledge, in fearthat other women will outshine them. And we even see it at schools, when moms compete to bring the best cake, secretly hoping to outbake the other moms.

It reminds me of that aunty many of us have, the one who bakes the best cupcakes, but when you ask her for the recipe, she never shares it. Nowadays we look at women who’ve come so far. They’re owning businesses, leading countries, making big decisions on company boards. And yet I see too many of them still not wanting to share their cupcake recipe with other women.

It’s made me question why. Perhaps that aunty fears that if she shared her cupcake recipe, then someone else would bake it better than her. And maybe that’s true. Maybe eventually someone else will make a better cupcake and dethrone her from ‘Cupcake Queen’ to merely Cupcake Princess. Maybe her sense of self-worth is pegged on the status of making the best cupcakes. But what the cupcake aunty doesn’t realise is that by refusing to share her recipe, she is creating a world where girls are encouraged to compete. A world where women are taught to not share their recipes, because other women won’t share either.

As a little girl, I was brought up in this world. I learned to compete with other girls to be first in the grade, and to compete for a partner, and to compete to get to the top of the career ladder. Compete because opportunities are limited and there can only be one winner.

The Scarcity Mindset

The idea that opportunities and achievements are finite; I call the scarcity mindset. The belief that for one person to win, someone else needs to lose. That when knowledge and opportunities are shared, you lose your competitive edge. That when you help someone up, you’re putting yourself down. It is the belief that there can only be one cupcake lady.

Why the Scarcity Mindset is Limiting – A tale of Two Bosses:

I find the scarcity mindset limiting because my experiences have demonstrated it to be untrue. Long ago, I worked for a boss who was a lot like the cupcake aunty. Instead of helping me to help her, she kept most of the work to herself with me doing menial tasks. Instead of leveraging what I learnt at university, my degree was belittled. Perhaps it came from a place of insecurity. I was more qualified than her. I was told that my qualification was not important, and it was the work I did for her that would bootstrap my career. I struggled to see how, especially since my day-to-day involved carrying her coffee. I didn’t last long and neither did her company. There’s always more to the story, but I think a part of it was that she kept her employees down, not realizing she was keeping herself down too.

What these cupcake ladies don’t appreciate is that the way we treat each other mirrors how we will be treated. When we behave badly towards each other, we’re exhibiting the behaviour of how men should treat us. And when we do that, we undermine the struggles women have fought so hard for, to be treated equally and to be taken seriously. We become a barrier to our own progress and that’s something we need to own.

I’m grateful that not all women are like that. My current manager (I know she’s reading this) has a different mindset. Instead of being intimidated by my capabilities, she’s fostered them and gave me more opportunities. When I performed well, instead of feeling threatened, she congratulated me. When I felt insecure about handling more responsibility, she silenced my doubts with encouragement. A simple encouragement goes a long way. And what women who have a scarcity mindset don’t realise is that by investing in me the way she has; it has come back to her tenfold. Giving me that extra responsibility, freed her up to do bigger projects. By leveraging my knowledge, the whole team gains from that expertise. By acknowledging when I do well, it encourages me to achieve even more. Better than that, it’s a reflection of how well she’s managing me. And because she’s willing to share her recipes, we can succeed together, as a team.

The Cheerleader Mindset

My current manager exemplifies a cheerleader mindset.  The idea that we are better off when we work together. That we each have our own unique value, and we should celebrate that value and learn from each other. Put simply, the cheerleader mindset is the idea that there’s enough space in the world for cupcakes of all kinds.  And we all benefit when there’s more than one cupcake lady. 

And so, to the women who are not following Instagram pages back. Even if it’s an advantage in the short term, you lose more in the long term. Because while you choose to not support her now, the road is long, and you may need her support later.

And while undermining her may feel good now, ask why you’re criticizing her in the first place. Because by preying on her self-doubt, you lose the possibility to be friends and learn from her. 

And while withholding work opportunities means your subordinate doesn’t progress now, not sharing the load means you carry everything alone. While working together means you both benefit from each others’ hard work. And who knows, maybe if you do this for her now, later, she could open doors for you too.

And while it might feel like you’ll be outshined when you share your knowledge, maybe she has knowledge to teach you too. It’s impossible to know everything. And if you don’t want to share your knowledge now, don’t be surprised if she doesn’t want to help you later. So even if it is for selfish reasons, it’s still in your interest to help each other.

And finally, when we do support, don’t criticise, stop withholding, start sharing, and stop competing, we don’t only empower her, we empower all women. When we treat each other well, we’re teaching both men and women to treat us better too. And when we lift each other up, society benefits as a whole. If we care about the legacy we leave for the next generation, then isn’t this a better message than teaching them to not share their cupcake recipes too?