It’s a myth that the gender wage gap exists because women are not as competitive as men. A recent McKinsey study found that women negotiate as often as men for promotions and raises, a form of competition, but they receive more negative feedback when they do. Coren Apicella and Johanna Mollerstrom’s new research, published in the New York Times, shows that while women and men do sometimes compete differently, women can be just as competitive as men. Apicella and Mollerstrom report that women do shy away from some—but not all—types of competition more than men. In an experiment conducted by the researchers, women chose to compete against another person less often than was true for men, but they were just as likely to choose self-competition. Women and men were equally likely to choose to compete against themselves to improve their own previous score—and equally likely to improve their performance. Apicella and Mollerstrom also found that women were more willing to compete against other women than against men. This agrees with my own research findings on women’s relationships in the workplace, published in my book New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together. The competitive feelings between women colleagues, which can result in unsupportive behaviors, happen for a reason: organizations actually set up women to feel competitive with one another. This happens when women see very few other women in senior leadership positions. As one of my research participants explained: You’re playing a game with men because there are so few women at the top. Because there are few slots for women, you see the successful women as your competition. You don’t really see the whole pie or all the people out there as your competition.
What Bosses Can DoWhen managers and supervisors understand the gender differences I’ve described here, they can adjust strategies, motivating women to engage in healthy competition that promotes growth and productivity. Here are some strategies:
- Create opportunities that focus on self-improvement and mastery rather than competition with colleagues.
- Provide feedback to female employees about their relative performance compared with male and female peers so that they can decide whether or not to compete with others.
- Raise awareness for women about the propensity of women to shy away from conflict so that they can reflect on why they may not feel comfortable competing with others.
- Encourage women to support other women in a caring and genuine way and openly celebrate their successes.
- Help women create a positive mindset about competing with other women rather than against other women as a win/win approach that can encourage each to do her best.