Competition not an exclusive men's club

I’ve been to quite a few networking events for women in business recently and at each one, the issue of gender diversity has come up. It’s a conversation that predictably unearths a number of smaller sub-issues – female confidence, gender stereotypes, and the gender pay gap. Something else that often gets mentioned is competition amongst women, and specifically, how women compete. “Women shouldn’t be competing with each other”, says one of the women at my table. “There’s enough opportunities out there for everyone.” “We should be lifting each other higher, I don’t compete with anyone” says another. And therein lies the problem.

It is my belief that the way women are conditioned to compete plays an integral part in the gender inequality issue. Think about it – men are encouraged to compete in all areas of life, in quite a direct way – on the sporting field, in the workplace, and even for women. It’s normal for men to compete with each other, and what’s more, they are very up front about it. It’s not an issue for two men to compete like warriors on the sporting field, yet share a laugh and a drink off the field – no hard feelings. Women on the other hand, are conditioned to compete in an indirect, somewhat covert way, and we are paying the price for it. Not only have I heard countless stories of women resorting to underhanded, bitchy tactics in order to get ahead of the pack, I have personally experienced it. Women so often will shy away from addressing issues directly – whether that be asking for a pay rise, tackling bullying behaviour head on or even asking for what they want in their personal lives.

The research into this area is fascinating, and backs up the masses of anecdotal evidence in this area. According to Boston based researcher Joyce Benenson, competition between women is carried out in three distinct ways. Firstly because women are genetically programmed to protect themselves from physical harm (to protect their reproductive organs and ensure they can bear children), they rely on indirect aggression towards other women, through verbal attacks or group tactics. Secondly, women with higher status need less help and protection from other women, who represent a potential threat. Therefore, a woman who tries to distinguish herself from the pack threatens other women and will encounter hostility. Interestingly, a common tactic used to deal with the threat posed by a very beautiful or accomplished woman is to insist on uniformity and equality – otherwise known in Australia as the ‘tall poppy syndrome’. The final way women are known to compete against a potential threat is through social exclusion, which is thought to have evolved from increasing their chances with surrounding males.

This idea that women shouldn’t compete, that we should rise above it in some way, is in my opinion a huge contributor to the problem. Competition is a natural part of human behaviour, and promotes growth, innovation, change and resilience. Women need to embrace this and start claiming what is theirs, rather than waiting patiently (and silently) for someone to give it to us.

My own personal journey with competition echoes this – after being bullied in primary school primarily at the hands of other young girls, and consequentially growing up quite distrustful of women, I spent a decade in a highly competitive, male dominated environment. Whilst there were only a few of us, the women in the business were either sexualised or ‘written off’ and were often pitted against each other in male discussion in the workplace. Despite knowing how wrong this was, I inherently wanted to fit in and be seen in a favourable light, and often avoided speaking up in situations where I knew I had something to offer. Now, in my thirties, I relish the challenge of competition, and I am not afraid to stand out, or to be seen as a threat by others. In fact, secretly, I hope I am.

Original article published in The West Australian