A Case For Healthy Competition Among Women

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash
Three business experts weigh in on how we can benefit from a bit of female competition and use it to grow in work and life.

It’s tough out there for women in the workplace. And we’re not just talking about discrimination, or sexual misconduct, or the pay gap, or paltry maternity leave.

We’re talking about how 57 percent of the country’s women are competing for 47 percent of available jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

A 2011 University of Chicago study indicated that men gravitate toward competitive professional positions, whereas women tend to shy away from them. As a result, when women are thrust into a situation where their performance is judged against that of their colleagues, it can sometimes bring out their worst, both professionally and personally.

How do we keep competition in the workplace from turning us into people we don’t want to be? We talked about it with three veteran business experts and discovered new ways to look at competition among women in business – starting with the idea that it can ultimately be a girl’s best friend.

Brittney Hogan | Co-Founder of Dames Collective
ON WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING IN A COMPETITIVE ENVIRONMENT

Healthy competition is essentially challenging one another to do better. When this happens, the ultimate goal is growth. Whether it is personal growth or expanding a business or gaining more clients, any woman can maximize her potential by working with others in her field.

I think healthy competition is looking to other women for inspiration, taking the lessons you’ve learned by watching their success and applying it to your own hustle. It’s not so much about being better than them, but wanting to be better in general for yourself because you see them doing it.

COMPETITION CAN ACTUALLY LEAD TO COLLABORATION

I’ve never been a very competitive person. While I am competitive in business, I’m not competitive toward other individuals. As long as I am continuously improving, I feel accomplished.

Something that my business partner and I preach all the time is collaboration over competition. I think that lifting others up takes you higher than you could ever go alone.

That means not being afraid to get acquainted with your “competitors.” Ask questions, show your interest in their work, compliment them and let them know that you are going to challenge yourself to rise to their level, and hopefully surpass it.

COMPETITION DOESN’T HAVE TO BE DIRTY

Competition is good for personal growth and everyone needs a challenge, so measuring your place against your competitors is a good way to start. But it doesn’t have to get dirty. We are all working toward the same goal and there are plenty of customers for everyone.

As entrepreneurs, especially those in the service field, we are starting to realize that more customers aren’t always the answer. It’s important to be picky as to who you work with to ensure it betters your brand, portfolio, etc. So offering a potential client a referral to someone you know does good work is going to be very valuable for your reputation…and your client will appreciate it. Being kind to one another is the most important thing.

Dr. Athena Vongalis-Macrow | Founding Director of Women in Leadership Lab
ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WOMEN’S AND MEN’S APPROACHES TO COMPETITION IN THE WORKPLACE

Firstly, it’s important to say that not all women experience the workplace the same. There is as much diversity amongst women as there is in the diverse ways that they interact with their male counterparts. Having said that, there is research showing that women tend to rely more on their knowledge expertise as a key ingredient in their portfolio for promotion.

In other words, “I know this work really well, so I deserve to be promoted.” Women also tend to image-manage with a view to minimizing mistakes and avoiding risk. These are referred to as protective strategies. Protective strategies appear less confident in winning over people.

However, when the actions of males were analyzed, they adopted more acquisitive strategies, focused on relationship-building and communicative strategies. Men tend to seek out ways to be seen as leaders in their relationships, even before they are in leadership positions. In a competitive context, where many entrepreneurial ventures rely on a community of support, men have an edge.

ON WOMEN LEADERS WORKING TOGETHER FOR THE GREATER GOOD

Gender is only part of the business identity. But having said that, leaders shape business, and having few women leaders means that the way business is done has not changed very much. The lack of leadership at the top means that it really is woman-versus-woman in the mid-career phases, and this can destroy a true sense of sisterhood and collaboration.

Having women leaders ignites the imagination that, firstly, it is possible, and, secondly, that it can be done differently. I hope that with more women leaders, we get a diversity of leadership styles that show the diversity of gender. We don’t all have to be Margaret Thatcher or Mother Theresa, but each woman can bring her creative flair and strength to her leadership. The onus is on current women leaders to take more risks, making bold decisions and leads in gender equality.

ON WHAT WE’RE REALLY COMPETING FOR

Recently, a scientist wrote to me about her difficulty getting work, despite the claims of a shortage of women in STEM. She said the solution of some companies was to advertise for one or two positions “for women only.” The company looked good for offering affirmative action but all it did was fuel competition between women.

In truth, the competition for women is not with men, nor with each other. The competition is for ideas, creativity and having a bold voice for the future. Healthy competition based on being at the forefront of imagining the future makes women look smart and brilliant.

Forget the everyday baby steps for equality – that will happen in its own time. What is missing are the women creating tomorrow’s world – policies, politics, cities, cars, bridges, space travel. I mean, women should be creating ideas about what a new colony on Mars may be like! That’s our competition – to have our ideas heard. I have faith that the new generations are more outspoken and restless enough to want more.

Sarah Godlewski | WE Capital
ON COMPETING WITHIN A MALE-DOMINATED INDUSTRY

I started my career as a management consultant in the defense industry. It’s pretty cutthroat – you’re either moving up or moving out. So how do you leverage each other to be a support system while recognizing there are only so many seats at the table?

The older group of women who grew up in this organizational environment was almost harder on us than the men were. The attitude was “we had to suffer, so you do, too.” But other women felt it was their responsibility to lift you up and bring you in on things. These women recognized the confidence lacking in other women – “I’m not ready for an opportunity this big.” They would push you and say, “No, you’re doing it. Not doing it isn’t even an option.” 

HEALTHY COMPETITION STARTS WITH WORKING ON YOURSELF

I’ve been really lucky to have great female mentors in my life and their voices are always in my head. My reaction might be to be defensively competitive and to think, “How can I take this person down?” but they encourage me to think about how to leverage this competition to my advantage and do it in a way where I’m not putting somebody else down.

When we support each other like this, we do better in business and we do better as women. Even if we’re competitors, together we can still raise one another’s voices. We can raise one another’s different skill sets. But I think that takes time and a process to get there. It’s really trying to understand your head versus your heart and how those work together.

ON SHIFTING COMPETITION FROM NEGATIVE TO POSITIVE

I always go into these situations believing in karma. This world of business, especially women in business, is small. You never know who your partner/boss/client will be in the future. When there’s the potential for negative energy around competition, I think about it this way: “What differentiates me and what am I doing differently from what my competitor is doing?” I will call out the strength of that person, while also elevating my strength.

We’re not interchangeable just because we’re female. There’s something you do that’s much better. There’s something the other person does that’s better than you. That doesn’t make you mutually exclusive.

The pool of women in this world is so small; we can’t afford to be “peeing” in it. Honestly, we need every single woman to have a voice at the table. Even if she’s a competitor, she’s bringing something to the community that I’m not. We shouldn’t be using our energy against each other – we should be using it to better leverage our voices to better drive decisions. If we can stop looking at competition negatively, we can see that it’s just going to make this small pool as strong as possible.

HOW TO ENCOURAGE HEALTHY COMPETITION IN YOUR SPACE
  • What ideas can have big impact in your life or company? Setup and lead discussion groups with other women in your community.
  • Who is in charge of the vision and how can you be involved? Ask questions, create a strategic plan, and find (or create openings) for yourself and others.
  • What will your company look like in 10 years? Think about your role and plan for the types of skills and knowledge you will need for the future.
  • Talk to everyone – don’t form a clique. Look for value in everyone around you and figure out what makes that person successful.
  • Don’t get into the gossip. Everybody has a bad day, but we need to elevate our voices to make all of us stronger in this world. Be kind, be fierce, encourage others and forge your own path.

Chelsea Batten is a writer, photographer and Patti Smith fangirl. One of the original digital nomads, she was seduced from life on the road by the wild beauty of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. Along with writing about life on the road less traveled by, she is currently building a yurt on the shore of Lake Superior. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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