Women Competing with Women: How to Make Competition Fun and Energizing

As a consultant and coach for more than thirty years, I have heard too many painful stories from female clients about feeling unsupported and even undermined by other women at work. When I decided to research this dynamic for my book, New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together, I found that these feelings and experiences 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. Belinda MJ Brown, writing for Forbes, suggests that the recent Olympic Games offer women in corporations another way to think about competition as a win-win scenario rather than a win-lose, or zero-sum-game, scenario. She reminds us of the recent Olympic gymnasts Aly Raisman and Simone Biles who, while competing with each other for Olympic Gold, were also able to cheer each other on to outperform their own previous performances. This reminds me of my own experience as a lap swimmer. I always swim faster and more effortlessly when someone who is my equal, or even a little stronger, is swimming in the lane next to me—even if it is a stranger. I draw energy from him or her and push myself a little harder in the presence of another athlete—even when no one is trying to win. Brown suggests the same can be true for women at work. If we can find fun and regeneration in competing with one another instead of against one another, we can find energy and enjoyment in encouraging one another to do our best and celebrate one another’s accomplishments. Brown suggests that we can shift our mind-sets about competing with other women to win-win by taking these steps:

  1. Become aware of the structural way organizations set up women in a win-lose mind-set against each other when there are few women in senior leadership positions.
  2. Notice your own thoughts and beliefs about competition with or against yourself or other women.
  3. Connect with and focus on your own strengths, instead of comparing yourself to others. Channel your energy into growing and leveraging your strengths.
  4. Support other women in a caring and genuine way, and openly celebrate their successes.
  5. Talk with other women about the benefits of encouraging one another to do their best. Agree to support and celebrate one another.
Try these win-win mind-sets and let me know in the comments section if you notice any changes in your energy and relationships at work. I believe that even with “so few women at the top,” supporting one another and competing with instead of against one another can result not only in our own individual successes but in changes in the cultures of our organizations, thus resulting in more women at the top. Photo Credit: Business Forward at Flickr.com]]>

6 thoughts on “Women Competing with Women: How to Make Competition Fun and Energizing”

  1. I read a brief story about female White House staffers who made the decision to always support each other and to acknowledge and reiterate what other women said in group meetings. This was their way of making sure that women’s thoughts and ideas were recognized and proper credit given. I thought it was a great idea and have put that into practice. When we support each other, even as friendly competitors, we are all stronger.

    • Dear Cindy:
      I agree that this is a great idea! I is my hope that more and more women can make this commitment to support each other getting our ideas heard, even when we don’t agree — and especially across difference!
      Thank you,

  2. Having worked in executive management positions presently and in the past, there are a couple of other categories that place women in competitive situations. I watched women of color fight other battles of climbing the ladder of success compared to their counterparts. I also believe class becomes an issue as well. I’ve heard Lesbian women that are open regarding their sexuality have experienced a different kind of competitive nature that exist in many environments. It’s my belief that breaking women in categories gives individuals seeking their support or attention a strategic advantage that can confuse and pit them against each other. Competition is a good thing if managed properly but in the wrong environments can be detrimental to a women’s overall worth. I’m not sure if my opinion means much to women considering I’m a man with only a woman’s name.

    • Thanks, Tracy. Your opinions mean a lot! Thanks for these thoughtful comments. Yes, I do agree that women in different categories, such as race, social class and sexual orientation, have different experiences and different battles to fight. I agree that these differences can pit us against one another. I have seen class differences pit women of the same race against each other such that much needed support was withheld. We have so much work to do to understand each other …..
      Thank you!

  3. This is such a great post, Anne. Thank you. I love your swimming metaphor! I am also a lap swimmer and this is so true. And as someone who grew up thinking that *all* competition was toxic (it *was* toxic in my family of origin) this puts it in a way I can finally relate to.
    And, it is so poignant for me that it is the first post since the election – in which “our most qualified female candidate was defeated by our least qualified male candidate.”
    There is a lump in my throat as I write this. 53% of white women who voted, voted against the female candidate. It is painful to know this, painful to see the results.

    • Thanks, Jeanette. I appreciate your thoughtful comment, as always. I, too, feel so sad about 53% of white women not voting for Hilary. It feels like we white women are still unable to support strong women and still feel we can only compete with each other by sabotaging each other behind the back. Sad.


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