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:
- 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.
- Notice your own thoughts and beliefs about competition with or against yourself or other women.
- Connect with and focus on your own strengths, instead of comparing yourself to others. Channel your energy into growing and leveraging your strengths.
- Support other women in a caring and genuine way, and openly celebrate their successes.
- Talk with other women about the benefits of encouraging one another to do their best. Agree to support and celebrate one another.