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New research into sister stereotype

19 April 2004

Lord help the mister who comes between me and my sister

Research by Victoria University gender expert Dr Jenny Neale reveals new depths to the sister stereotype of shared secrets, lipsticks, and boyfriends.

"There are stereotypes of sisters ranging from, 'can't stand each other' to 'joined at the hip' but I wanted to know more, and about what lay in between", Dr Neale says. She says that contemporary social research has neglected to focus on the sister relationship in favour of studying the family unit as a whole or parent/sibling relationships. The results of Dr Neale's interviews with 48 women have been gathered into a book, No Friend like a Sister: Exploring the Relationship between Sisters. It will be launched at Victoria University on 21 April.

Dr Neale says research has shown that sisters tend to talk or take part in activities that involve talking whereas brothers form relationships by ‘doing things’. This means sisters have a unique role in the family. She says though that not all of the women she interviewed had, or had always, enjoyed a close sister relationship.

"Some of the women explained the labels parents had ascribed when they were young had created long-lasting tension. For example, one was considered 'the pretty one' and one was 'the smart one'. This, and other tension created during childhood, created barriers that some women in their 50s said they were only dealing with now, and some said they would never get over.

"On the other hand, many of the women commented that the strength of their relationship had created a kind of sisterly 'shorthand'. Often they would find themselves talking to each other and use a certain word or not need to finish a sentence and the other would know exactly what was meant."

Dr Neale says that the women distinguished between the relationships they had with close friends and those with their sisters. Sisters were more likely to discuss and criticise family with each other than with a friend because it was based on an understanding of the closeness of the relationship despite the criticism. However they also reported enjoying a certain freedom with friends because they were able to step outside the role their family saw them in.

Many of the women tracked changes in a sister relationship through their life stages. Women who had begrudged being the younger sister got to a stage in their lives when they thanked their 'trailblazing' sisters for pushing the boundaries and being able to offer advice. Dr Neale says that there was evidence of older women, in their 70s, enjoying the chance to rekindle a relationship with a sister. Marriage for those women meant putting their husband and children ahead of the family they were born into, hence losing touch with their sisters. Being widowed gave them an opportunity to pick up from where their lives had diverged.

"Ultimately the research showed that while women don't have a choice in the biological link that makes them a sister, they can choose the nature of that relationship. Also, while sisters don't always get on, the majority recognised that it was special to have a sister and tried to keep the relationship open even if it wasn't going to be a close one".


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