The actress spoke at the ANNpower Vital Voices Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C.
Credit: Michael Loccisano/Getty

It’s no secret that there’s sexism in Hollywood. But Jennifer Morrison believes if women treated one another better, they’d make greater strides toward equality.

“One of the greatest obstacles that women face in all businesses – not just the industry, but it’s pretty prevalent in the industry – is that women aren’t always very nice to women,” she tells PEOPLE. “Men do this thing where they sort of band together and they support each other and try to lift each other up and try to encourage each other to get these different positions, and women somehow seem to be fighting against each other instead of for each other.”

“I know that we’re starting to see change in that,” the Once Upon a Time star adds. “I’m really lucky to have incredible women friends, and I’m surrounded by other very successful, very smart, strong women who I really admire and respect, and we do all support each other, and we do all try to encourage and uplift each other. That, I don’t think is the norm.”

That’s why the actress is all about girl power. Morrison, 36, has been an advisory council member of the ANNpower Vital Voices Initiative, a partnership between ANN INC. and Vital Voices Global Partnership, for four years, striving to inspire and empower young women to change the world. And on Monday, she helped host the program’s leadership forum in Washington, D.C., speaking to 50 fellows – all high school students making a difference in their communities.

It’s a cause close to Morrison’s heart: Both her parents were teachers, so she’s passionate about education, and as a teenager she served on student council on the state and national levels.

“These girls are just so inspiring,” Morrison says. “At such a young age, they’re doing so much already for the world.”

During her speech, she focused on turning obstacles into opportunities.

“There were several times in my life that I had some pretty major obstacles, externally and internally, to overcome in order to be a stronger version of myself, and in order to be able to continue to grow and to change and evolve into the actor today and the director I am today and ultimately be in positions of leadership on set and with the people around me, and do it in a way that I hope is graceful and kind and productive,” she says.

“So it’s kind of about encouraging these girls to find truer sense of self in each obstacle they face,” she says. “I feel like because they’re already making decisions in life to try to make the world a better place, they’re clearly girls who are looking for purpose and meaning in their lives.”

Making the world a better place starts with treating people with kindness, Morrison says.

She remembers sitting in a nail salon while two women flipped through an issue of PEOPLE, zeroing in on a spread on the 50 most beautiful women over the age of 50.

“They just ripped apart every woman in that magazine: ‘Oh, well she must be airbrushed, and clearly she’s had a bunch of work done,’ ” she recalls. “They were speaking about actresses that I’ve met, that I know they haven’t had work done, they just worked very hard to take very good care of themselves. It just made me so sad that instead of saying, ‘Wow, this woman looks really great, she must have worked really hard,’ that the instinct is to attack.”

“It’s very scary to exist in that place. That’s not helping anyone. We’re talking about trying to bridge a gender gap that’s been a problem for a really long time. Yes, we’re actually getting better at it – salaries are getting better, there’s more and more women moving into leadership in the world, which is wonderful – but we also have to be kind to each other and support each other.”

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So how can we make show business – and society – egalitarian?

“It’s so important to catch ourselves in those moments where we might have the instinct, out of our own insecurities or our own fears, to attack someone, and instead to build them up and to see the best in them,” Morrison explains. “I think if we can do that one person at a time, we’ll really start to make a difference. If we just work on our own mindset about it, it will definitely start to at least chip away at that problem.”