Nice girls don’t compete (and other career-killing myths)

Nice girls don’t compete (and other career-killing myths)

A POPULAR MANTRA making the rounds of women’s empowerment groups and events advises that “Collaboration is the new competition.” At the core of this message are two ideas. The first is that we’ll all get so much further if we partner with one another rather than compete against each other. The second idea is that women bring a “collaborate, don’t compete” energy to the world of business.

On the one hand, this is true. Research has shown that men are more competitive than women. This preference for competition shows itself early in childhood and increases through adolescence and into adulthood. By the time we enter the working world, women are 38 per cent less likely to select a competitive task than men. And this is where things begin to get complicated.

In the workplace, competitiveness is a winning skill. In a study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, researchers from Stanford University and the University of Pittsburgh found that if a woman is less likely to compete, she is also less likely to get promoted or land a top-paying job. The conclusion is that talented women sometimes under-compete.

A central challenge is that we tend to stereotype competitiveness as a “male” behaviour…a myth that would likely induce a hard eye roll from Serena Williams, teen swimming sensation Penny Oleksiak, my entire soccer team and, I suspect, many of the women reading this article.

In a study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics researchers… found that if a woman is less likely to get promoted or land a top-paying job.
Eleanor Beaton

Competitiveness isn’t a “guy thing”…it’s a human thing. It just so happens that boys and men exhibit higher preferences to compete. New findings from researchers at Stanford and Columbia Universities have found that women greatly benefit when we downplay stereotypical gender differences and instead see behaviours such as competitiveness not as gender traits, but as personality traits. Indeed, I see competitiveness not just as a behaviour, but rather as a situational skill that can be practiced, just like persuasive communication, running a highly effective team meeting or learning how to collaborate better with others.

Given the career benefits of competition, here are some tips to improve your competition skills.

Fix your competitive mindset. One reason people shy away from competing is that they equate competition with a winner and a loser. Yes, a primary object of any competition is to win, whether it’s a promotion or the World Cup. However, a net benefit of competitiveness is improvement and fun. When you compete, you challenge yourself to strive, improve and learn on the fly. Even better, that improvement—and fun—happens as a bi-product of competing, not winning. In other words, you can lose a competition and have a great time doing it. Train yourself to see competition as a path to improvement and fulfillment, not only a path to victory.

Expose yourself to low-risk competitive tasks. A great way to train yourself to throw your hat into the competitive ring in a work setting is to engage in competition outside of work. Road races, board games and other lowpressure environments can be a great training ground to build up your competitive edge. The key is to not only participate in these activities, but to give yourself permission to actually practice competing.

Surround yourself with competitive women. If you regard competition as a male trait you’re less likely to practice it, and this could hold you back from challenging, careershaping opportunities. Seeking out women who embrace healthy competition in certain areas of their lives can help to normalize the behaviour and render you more willing to practice it in your own life.

The bottom line: competitiveness is not a behaviour, but a situational skill that can be especially beneficial for high potential women. What’s more, as anyone who has played a team sport can attest, competitiveness doesn’t ever have to preclude collaboration, meaning or enjoyment. So dig deep, and channel your inner Serena Williams.

Eleanor Beaton
About Eleanor Beaton

Eleanor Beaton is a writer and consultant who has helped some of Canada's most successful women entrepreneurs build influence and make an impact through courageous and unforgettable storytelling.

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