“There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” -- Madeleine Albright, Former U.S. Secretary of State
One dynamic that hinders women from being more successful is something that most people don’t speak about openly: women’s damaging competition with other women. By “damaging competition,” we mean competition that is not productive, but instead is personal and mean-spirited in nature.
It is a “taboo topic” because most people don’t want to admit it is happening (or worse yet, that they engage in it). There is also a fear that by speaking about it openly, this could cause people to justify stereotypes and biases against women in the workplace. However, if it is not acknowledged, it can not be managed.
Damaging competition can take many forms: bullying, passive-aggressive behavior, back stabbing, gossip, sabotage, and paying women less or rating them lower than men, when not deserved.
What are some reasons for damaging competition?
1.) A theory called “Power Dead Even Rule." Women tend to want to stay on equal footing with other women, as opposed to men who prefer a hierarchical structure. When a woman violates the Power Dead Even Rule by getting a promotion, some women get upset and will try to sabotage her.
2.) A belief that there is only room for a few women at the top. Women have closer and more personal relationships at work than men. At first glance, this might seem like a reason not to have damaging competition. But when two women get too close, it can lead to more trouble and feelings of betrayal when there is conflict.
3.) Women are frequently socialized that their interactions are personal, whereas boys and men are more likely to learn to depersonalize a competitive interaction, thus making it easier for them to compete with others. This extends into the workplace where disagreement is healthy when dealt with properly.
4.) Feelings of insecurity when one feels like a token minority whose competence is in question. When some people are insecure, their reaction is to try to bring others down. Women need to help other women, as opposed to hurting them.
What can we do to stop this damaging competition?
1.) Be aware that it does occur.
2.) Ensure you’re not engaging in it or having it done to you.
3.) Address conflict directly — disagreement can be healthy and productive, provided it is dealt with properly.
4.) Consciously work to help other women succeed. The laws of professional karma dictate that you will benefit as well.
If this topic does not apply to you at all, be aware of whether it is happening among other women in your company. Be a mentor and help them to recognize the situation and deal with it head on.