Home Features Women in Leadership Sister act: Are women afraid to compete with each other at work?

Sister act: Are women afraid to compete with each other at work?

Kristin Wong* says women do not have an inherent inability to work together; rather, workplace culture can work against women being competitive.


Photo: Motortion

At one of my first jobs, I was blogging for an entertainment media company but was eager to take on extra script writing.

Shortly after I was hired, another female writer came on board.

My editors asked us who wanted to take on a new assignment, and I didn’t raise my hand.

She landed the gig, and the next one, too.

Now I realise why I held back – I was afraid our relationship would suffer.

Anticipating a rift between us made me avoid competing with her altogether.

What I experienced is a real thing.

Selin Kesebir, an assistant professor at London Business School, has studied how competition affects women’s relationships.

Her team, along with researchers from the University College London, asked women and men to complete a simple typing task with same-gender and opposite-­gender participants and rate how they felt afterward.

The women going up against other women reported higher levels of negative emotions – like feeling nervous, insecure, or hesitant.

Men competing with each other were more likely to report positive reactions; they felt energised and excited.

And when the women went head-to-head with the guys?

They didn’t feel as threatened as with their female peers, nor did they worry their relationships with the men would suffer.

It was a girl problem.

“When women had to compete with other women, they often felt like their relationship was negatively impacted,” says Kesebir.

“Those feelings may lead women to avoid situations where they’d have to compete with female co-workers or to not compete as vigorously.”

That means they may miss out on landing big career opportunities.

There are so many obstacles to the path of success; is it really possible that women are holding one another back?

Yes, experts say, but the reasons run deeper than you may think.

Girls aren’t exposed enough to healthy competition

When girls play as kids, Kesebir says, “they try to make things equal, whereas boys try to decide who is better”.

Boys’ activities are traditionally competitive, while girls focus on communal goals, like helping and supporting each other.

“The notion is,” Kesebir says, “that girls who try to compete tend to be disliked.”

The message to young women today is starting to change.

Think of the #LikeAGirl campaign, which embraces feminine qualities as markers of strength, or the increased visibility of women in sports.

“But generally,” says Kristen Liesch, a consultant on gender equality and diversity, “girls are still implicitly discouraged to behave in ways commensurate with competing, like leadership.”

Workplaces tend to be cut-throat rather than cooperative

When Lauren, 37, started in marketing and communications, she was assertive and ambitious, and viewed those qualities as strengths.

She’d go after promotions and wouldn’t shy away from negotiating her pay.

But a few months into the job, she saw the downside to a highly competitive workplace — her female boss seemed to be taking credit for the team’s work.

And the other women were quick to go behind one another’s backs and throw another female colleague under the bus.

“It felt like only one of us could move up,” Lauren says.

Some call this the Sisterhood Ceiling, a phenomenon whereby women prevent other women from advancing in the workplace by doing things like actively undercutting them.

Kesebir emphasises that it’s the workplace culture that’s a strain for women, not the inability of women to work together or compete in general.

In fact, women in her study who were asked to cooperate reported fewer nega­tive feelings and the lowest amount of relationship damage.

In general, managers can help shift the culture.

“They can focus on making things more egalitarian,” says Kese­bir, by highlighting how everyone on the team can contribute, for example.

Tapping into dynamics that work for everyone is good for morale and the bottom line, Kesebir says.

There’s a scarcity of female leaders

“Women have made huge strides in getting to the top,” says Shaun Harper, Executive Director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, “but they’re still underrepresented in leadership.”

“There’s this feeling that they have to compete against each other for a few coveted slots.”

It’s not just promotions that seem scarce but praise, too.

“There’s evidence that when women work alone or in a group of other women, credit is given appropriately and equally,” Liesch says.

“However, when women work with men, too, those men often get credit for the team’s work.”

If you can’t change your office culture overnight (and who can?), it can help to reframe how you view it.

When Chris Castillo, 29, now a career coach and trainer, worked in advertising, she had an unspoken rivalry with another woman on the team with the same title.

“We both wanted to stand out,” Castillo says.

“She’d make comments about who was ‘the boss’ out of us two, and I got jealous every time I felt she was doing better than me.”

“I made comments, too.”

It continued until Castillo confronted her co-worker.

“We admitted we were wrong, addressed our concerns, and agreed to move on,” she says.

Rather than let their competitive dynamic be disruptive, Castillo says, they saw it as an opportunity to learn from each other and became each other’s support system: “I still talk to her, and I’m so thankful for that relationship.”

It’s worth remembering that competition is not a bad thing, and it’s often a part of work.

“I want women to not be afraid of competition, but to know that we can get ahead through collaborating, too,” says Claire Wasserman, founder of Ladies Get Paid, an organisation that seeks to close the wage and leadership gap.

“Looking out for yourself does not mean that it has to be to the detri­ment of others.”

“You never know where that person is going to end up.”

“They could help you get another job or support you at being better at your own work.”

That’s a win-win.


Kristin Wong is a freelance writer. She tweets at @thewildwong

This article first appeared at www.glamour.com