I never played team sports as a kid. Not unless you count the all-girls town softball league I endured in grade school, and I don’t. Somehow recently, I got roped into playing co-ed touch football with a group of friends, on an actual team, with t-shirts, the whole deal. I’ve actually come to love it—the camaraderie, the feeling of belonging. And, since we’re not half bad, the zing of a collective win.
And yet—I’ve witnessed how differently women approach competition than men, given a level playing field, literally. I envy the men. They can have a great time—play hard, trash talk, knock each other over—and for the most part, get past it. They can shake it off, and shake hands afterward.
But the women are a different story. I find the women tense and terse on the field. We never trash talk each other directly; we whisper to our female teammates about what one said or did that was mean or uncalled for. A few times, I guarded a woman too closely. “Get off me!” she hissed. I felt chastened.
Even though I’m competitive by nature, I avoid those moments. I find myself making jokes or even putting myself down so that I don’t seem like a “threat” to another woman, and apologizing when I step on her foot.
Is it that women can’t handle competition? No. But women aren’t encultured to be comfy with competition. With men, battling to be king of the hill is expected. with women, competition feels more subterranean. We know, on some level, that we’re not just competing with everyone; we’re competing with each other, albeit for a smaller slice of the pie.
And it affects how we compete.
Geoffrey James, contributing editor to Inc.com, writes that to avoid, or worse, apologize for being competitive is a mistake: “Wanting to win (and even wanting the other guy to lose) isn't evil. It's human. It's the stuff of life.”
OK, fine. But there’s a reason why competition feels differently to women, and why we may struggle in a different way than men do.
The gender divide
In her post on Forbes.com (“The Dark Side of Female Rivalry in the Workplace and What to Do About It”) Bonnie Marcus points to research which confirms that women are more likely to believe their lives are limited by environmental factors, and not totally under their control. This, she says, can contribute to how competitive a woman is.
“If we lack the confidence in our innate talent to help us reach our goals,” she writes, “we are more competitive and see anyone is a potential threat, especially other women in a workplace that fails to offer sufficient advancement opportunity.”
It’s not a matter of whether competition is good or bad, then, but how we use it to motivate and work with each other.
How competition can inhibit women
A study out of Olin Business School at Washington University, reported on by Elizabeth Segren in Fast Company, showed this negative effect of competition on women:
“While recent research suggests that women play better in small team environments, boosting group creativity and cooperation, this new study introduces a major caveat: When teams are forced to go head-to-head with one another, women’s creative output goes down. In fact, the more intense the competition, the weaker women perform.”
Women perform better on a team, but when those teams are forced to compete for a prize, she says, they perform worse. The problem here is not why women do this, but the fact that cultures promoting only this kind of incentive risk giving men an advantage over women in the workplace. Not great when your goal is to promote more women to positions of leadership.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t use competition to motivate us, nor that we should bury our competitive urge. It’s natural to feel competitive. But using it to pit people against each other, particularly when they technically are on the same team, may not be the way to go, especially if you want the best out of people, and women specifically. Not because we can’t “handle” it, but because it’s not how our brains work best.
This, after all, is the reason I keep playing a sport that, frankly, I have no business playing. Because there is nothing like being on a team, having each other’s backs, men and women alike. Nothing like the high five, the hug, the slap on the shoulders when you’ve done something great that the whole group benefits from. You need some sense of competition to inspire a team, but often, the team itself is the reward.