When it comes to workplace equality, is there one area in which women are actually complicit in holding themselves—and each other—back? That’s the question posed by an article in Glamour’s August issue, titled “Are Women Afraid to Compete with Each Other at Work?
The answer is often “yes.” And the reasons stem as far back as childhood, according to Selin Kesebir, Ph.D., an assistant professor at London Business School, who has studied how competition affects women’s professional relationships.
“The notion is that girls who try to compete tend to be disliked,” Kesebir tells Glamour. As a result, “they try to make things equal, whereas boys try to decide who is better.” This, of course, extends to gender-targeted activities, which traditionally tend to be more competitive for boys, while girls’ activities tend toward “communal goals, like helping and supporting each other.”
To test this theory, Kebesir’s team asked women and men to complete a typing exercise with same-gender and with opposite-gender competitors and report how they felt afterward. The result?
“When women had to compete with other women, they often felt like their relationship was negatively impacted. Those feelings may lead women to avoid situations where they’d have to compete with female coworkers or to compete as vigorously.”
Of course, that means that women often aren’t as assertive when it comes to pursuing career opportunities—or aren’t straightforward in their approach, instead replacing healthy competition and collaboration with cutthroat tactics. As Glamour explains:
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 emphasizes 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.
One of the major issues in workplace culture is how still few women there are in management positions, fostering an often unhealthy sense of competition in the effort to break the glass ceiling. As Shaun Harper, Ph.D., executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, told Glamour:
“Women have made huge strides in getting to the top. But they’re still underrepresented in leadership. There’s this feeling that they have to compete against each other for a few coveted slots.”
And as one marketing and communications professional, known simply as “Lauren,” reported, the issue becomes further compounded for women of color, who are trying to achieve at the intersection of race and gender.
“Growing up black, I thought there was room for only one,” Lauren told Glamour. “That’s all you see. There’s only one black friend on the TV show, so that reinforced my competitive nature. So whenever I saw someone getting public praise, I thought, ‘OK, I’ve got to roll up my sleeves and fight harder.’”
So what’s the solution? Learning that competition is healthy—but it needn’t be cutthroat. As Claire Wasserman, founder of Ladies Get Paid, a New York City-based organization, told Glamour:
I want women to not be afraid of competition, but to know that we can get ahead through collaborating too. 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.
The Glow Up tip: Glamour’s August issue is on newsstands now.