We women don’t like to think of ourselves as competitive. We’re all sugar and spice, and men are the ones who shout and beat each other up, right? 

Most of us think we’re far too nice to compete with other women. But we do. We all do. We just do it in a different way from men because over evolutionary time we’ve had different pressures and needs to fulfil. Although quick caveat here: it’s worth noting that as with all gender differences, there’s a wide spectrum of competition styles in men and in women with lots of overlap, so there will always be exceptions. 

Anyway we all know that men have a tendency to take big and sometimes crazy risks to help them gain status and dominance over other men. That’s why we keep seeing the videos on Facebook of blokes showing off by jumping over speeding cars and other ridiculous things, and it’s why young men pay much higher car insurance premiums than young women. It’s also why many men are ruthless and single-minded in their careers. The thing is, men have a lot to gain from high status and so they’re prepared to work hard and take risks to achieve this. After all, it’s the fiercest warriors, the gold-medal winning male athletes, and the alpha-male executives who are the ones to attract the most women. Sex is, as James Hunt once proclaimed, the breakfast of champions. 

So this leads to men competing directly with one another, and they’re not backwards in coming forwards about their talents and achievements. They like to take the credit when things go right, and if challenged they’re often prepared to use their fists. Men kill one another far far more than women ever kill anyone. Fighting pays for men, biologically speaking. 

It’s a very different story for women. 

In biological terms, women don’t get the same gains from high status. It doesn’t tend to make them more attractive to men, and even if it did, multiple sexual partners don’t usually significantly increase the numbers of kids you produce [that said, there are sometimes benefits, but that’s another story]. So the propensity for risk taking in women hasn’t been passed down through the generations in the way it has for men. There are also bigger costs to women of direct competition; if a woman gets injured or dies, odds are that her children will die too, in ancestral times anyway. 

For women over the millennia, the main issue in terms of biological success would have been to have children and maximise the chances that those kids would survive to have babies themselves, and this can help explain why women, even today, tend to be far less risk-prone than men, and also why women are extra-keen to look after their own health. Women are made for survival. 

But we women still need to compete with one another. We compete for the best mates, because let’s face it, men vary a lot in how sexy they are and in how good they are at helping to raise a brood. And we also compete for the stuff we need for ourselves and our kids to thrive. In today’s world this means competing for the best jobs, the best schools, the best friends. 

So we have our friends and allies, but unrelated women are all potential competitors because they need the same things as we do. And since we don’t usually want to take the risk of outright confrontation, we compete covertly. 

But this ‘under the radar’ competition has some serious implications for relationships among women in workplaces: 

Firstly, covert or indirect competition usually involves bitching behind others’ backs, bullying or social exclusion. It’s the safest way to bring down your opponents because it’s usually hard to identify who’s doing it, and you can always claim that it was all a misunderstanding if confronted. But of course this sort of behaviour causes misery and huge stress for many, as well as massively hitting productivity. 

Clearly we women need to make sure we’re not on the receiving end of bitching or exclusion, so we’ve evolved to be very aware of the emotions and intentions of others, especially other women. We need to keep an eye on each other. 

And this sensitivity in women is borne out in personality studies which consistently show that women, on average, score higher on the personality factor “Agreeableness” than men do. What this means is that women tend to be very good at picking up on the feelings and emotions of others and this can, of course, be positive. In fact, in many of today’s workplaces where people skills are paramount, women do extremely well. 

But another outcome of this talent is that we’re extremely sensitive to criticism, especially from other women. Just imagine a senior woman criticising a piece of work you’ve done. If you’re a woman yourself there’s a good chance you’ll feel a sense of outrage rather than using the experience to up your game.  

And women attempt, albeit unconsciously, to minimise competition by maintaining equality among women in their group. If one of your number, tries to be better, smarter, or just a bit different then pressure is applied to bring her back down to everyone else’s level: “Who does she think she is?!” In a work context, if your female colleague gets promoted above the rest of the group, she’s more likely to provoke bitching and sarcasm than healthy competition or admiration. And research shows that women really don’t tend to like women bosses, while for men, they’re equally happy with a boss of either gender. 

This drive in women to appear of equal rank contributes to that well known tendency in many to play down their own skills and expertise, to keep their heads down and their mouths shut in meetings. And women tend not to value skills in other women either. All these propensities make it difficult for women to progress, and they lead to a general lack of collaboration among women, particularly in male-stereotypical workplaces. 

Clearly we need to address these issues, firstly for women’s own work satisfaction and progression. Secondly, improving relationships among women will help the bottom line of the companies they work for, with many bosses attempting to increase the proportion of women working at all levels. 

So what can we do to make things better for women working together? I’d like to suggest three broad categories of solution to these concerns. 

  1. Firstly, we can tackle the negative consequences of competition among women through using awareness of the issues and why they happen to encourage women to change their behaviour, but also help men to change attitudes too in order to foster an environment that’s going to help women to get along and feel comfortable about being assertive and explicit about their achievements and skills.Sowe can have sessions to flag up areas of competition and find ways to avoid it. For instance, we could ask; Are senior women being sensitive to other women’s hypersensitivity about criticism and making sure junior women feel appreciated? Or if women find themselves bitching about a colleague – increased awareness might increase the chance that they can pull themselves and each other up about it, if the goal is to achieve a good working environment for all women. 
  2. If we can increase the level of trust among women working together this is going to help combat bullying and covert sniping and there are various ways we can do this. For instance, getting together with other women for regular sessions to talk about non-work related issues will level the playing field somewhat in terms of rank, since a junior woman may have more knowledge and experience of a particular issue than a senior one, so roles are reversed at least for a while. Team bonding exercises involving slightly scary outdoor pursuits could fulfil a similar function; a woman may be the alpha-female at work, but that doesn’t mean she won’t be nervous about abseiling down a cliff or negotiating an aerial tightrope and she’ll need encouragement and support from others. Another idea could be the periodic and random pairing of women in an organisation to have a coffee and a chat together. This would give women the opportunity to understand and connect with those at different levels from themselves.
  3. Finally we should also promote a culture which values a typically “female” way of doing things, and recognises that women’s talent for empathy and emotional intelligence are vital for any organisation. It shouldn’t be the case that the only way to succeed is to ‘lean in’ and be more like a typical man – although in saying that, of course, a proportion of women willwant to do things in a more masculine way – and obviously they should have that opportunity.

With all this talk of competition among women, I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should discount the role of men in the continued subordination of women in male dominated workplaces. Sexism and sexual harassment continue to be problems that need to be addressed. We need to encourage a prevailing culture that sees women as deserving of equal respect and consideration as men. 

But we also need to recognise that women themselves are often guilty of not giving other women that respect and consideration. And by understanding the reasons behind this – the competition among women – we can find ways to help women work more effectively together and improve career progression and work satisfaction in women generally. 

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