Women are often each other’s biggest fans. According to one study, women are five times more likely to have an automatic preference for their own gender than men are. Female friendships are considered nurturing and supportive. Women are thought of as the friendlier, more caring, kinder, and less aggressive gender – even by men.
Here’s the conundrum. What happens when women cross the threshold of the workplace? What causes these positive perceptions to fall away and relationships between women to sour? Why are women in business regularly thought of as cut-throat or just plain mean to each other? When does compassion turn into catfight?
Sun Young Lee of University College London’s School of Management, and Selin Kesebir and Madan Pillutla from London Business School’s Organisational Behaviour group, investigated why women’s work relationships with each other don’t always fit their image as the “nicer” gender. Could it be that the competitive structure of the workplace harms relationships between female employees?
Several studies have confirmed that women consider themselves to be less competitive than men. For example, given the choice, women will opt to be paid for what they’ve done or the number of tasks they’ve completed, rather than according to where they rank among their peers. Men, on the other hand, choose the competitive option more often than women, prepared to take the risk of being paid less.
Different attitudes towards competition are revealed long before careers start. Children who have been sitting side by side in the classroom, will very often separate into distinct gender groups when the bell rings for playtime. Girls gather in twos and threes. “Their interactions are more focused on supporting, helping and being nice to each other,” says LBS’s Selin Kesebir. In contrast, boys tear around in larger groups or organize competitive games, striving for status within their group. They’re also more likely to be involved in sport, experiencing its regular lessons of victory and defeat.
Boys expect and accept being ranked by their own performance and they readily rank the performance of others: to them it’s ‘normal.’ This doesn’t work well within a group of girls where claiming superiority can go down badly. A girl making an overt comparison between herself and another girl can be seen as offensive, violating the norms of female friendship.
Does this disparity continue into adulthood when the playground is exchanged for the workplace? In work conversations, women can downplay their successes, attributing them to luck or serendipity. Eager to maintain the impression of equality, they gloss over differences in superiority and achievements. When competition encroaches on such carefully-levelled terrain, it shakes an unspoken foundation of female relationships causing them to malfunction. Men don’t tend to experience this because for them, as Kesebir observes, “equality is not seen as necessary, and competition is mostly seen as an ordinary, natural aspect of the relationships.”
Lee, Kesebir & Pillutla undertook a series of studies to assess women and men’s differing attitudes to competing with their co-workers, and investigate any knock-on effect on peer relationships. Their research revealed that female participants were more likely than men to think that competing with same gender coworkers was undesirable and unacceptable – that it was simply ‘not right’. It wasn’t that they viewed competition itself as a problem – the women didn’t report an aversion to competing with men.
Next, members of a mixed group were asked to name both a female and male coworker – someone of similar position and experience to themselves. How intensely did they compete with these coworkers? And did they like them?
The results showed that, on average, men’s liking or disliking someone was not related at all to whether or not they felt in fierce competition with that individual: there was no correlation between liking and competition. This applied to men’s attitude towards both men and women.
The picture was the same for the way women regarded male colleagues.
But a very different picture was revealed when women reflected on interactions with female colleagues. They were less likely to feel that they were in competition with another woman than was the case with men’s attitude to other men. But when a woman did admit to feeling she was in competition with a woman, it made her like that woman less.
To test this further, Lee, Kesebir & Pillutla and Lee presented participants with a scenario in which they were competing with a coworker – Jenny or Josh - for a reward at work. Would it place a strain on their relationship with that person - or worse? Yes it would – when a woman was competing with “Jenny”. But if the woman was competing with “Josh”, her attitude towards him would be unaffected.
A final study investigated different attitudes to competing and cooperating. Pairs of participants of the same gender were given five seconds to estimate the number of dots in a pattern. Half the paired participants were told that the person in their pair who came closer to the correct number would be awarded a point. The other half were told that they would both receive a point if at least one of them guessed within a certain range of the correct number of dots. When asked how they felt about their partner in the exercise, the competing pairs of women reported a significantly higher level of relational damage compared with their male counterparts. Being placed in a cooperating situation where the end result combined the efforts of both women, rather than having a ‘winner’ and a ‘loser’, took no toll on the relationship between them.
So what about the cliché about women hating working with women and turning into ‘mean girls’ at work? Lee, Kesebir & Pillutla’s research, comparing women working in both competitive and collaborative situations, exposed the ‘mean girls’ cliché as a myth.
If women simply couldn’t work together then they would have reported higher levels of relational damage when asked to cooperate with each other. The problem lies not in women’s inability to work together but rather in organizations’ competitive structures that pit women against each other, sabotaging their ongoing relationships.
These are robust findings. Kesebir says that time after time the results showed that, “when women compete with other women their relationship takes a hit” – although she underlines that the studies focused on situations where the women had competition imposed on them rather than choosing to compete.
Furthermore, anticipating – and dreading – such negative emotions and relational damage may cause a woman to withdraw when the prospect of competition looms. Kesebir suggests that the woman may think along these lines: “I don’t want to be in this situation. I will step away. There is a potential loss for me in this.” There’s a potential loss for her employer too: if a woman finds a competitive situation difficult, she may not perform to her full capability.
Businesses cannot afford to ignore this gender difference in attitude and behaviour. Good relationships increase productivity and profits, and they reduce staff turnover. Unwelcome competition between women may inflict damage that cannot be repaired when they’re later called on to collaborate and work as a team.
Both men and women will benefit from being aware of the different attitudes to competition pinpointed by this research. It’s not merely an ethical or moral concern; it holds the key to unlocking women’s full potential and maximizing their value within organizations and to the wider economy. Women should also be aware that competition between them may affect their relationships and take steps to protect – or repair - them if necessary.
Selin Kesebir is Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School
5 ways to reassess competition at work
1. Discover what motivates – or demotivates - your colleagues, both female and male. Let them know you value them.
2. Decide on the most effective approach – or approaches – for your workplace and adjust your behaviour accordingly. Self-deprecation may be the right tactic in a mostly female environment but it can come across as a lack of confidence in a male-dominated arena. Conversely bragging about achievements will not go down well where women significantly outnumber men.
3. Remember that being fair doesn’t necessarily mean treating everyone the same. More egalitarian environments that reward collaboration may give women (and perhaps some men) a greater chance to succeed.
4. Look past the female vocabulary of understatement. It often masks achievement and talent. Follow advice to managers suggested by Sue Unerman and Kathryn Jacob in their book The Glass Wall and give women ‘a structured opportunity every month’ during which they can outline what they’ve achieved.
5. Don’t amplify competition by the way you reward or elevate people. “Measure people against absolute standards rather than against each other,” Kesebir suggests. Reward all those who reach a particular sales target rather than just the top salesperson; structure bonuses to reflect the efforts of the whole team rather than the individual’s.
Lee, S. Y., Kesebir, S., & Pillutla, M. M. (2016). Gender differences in response to competition with same-gender coworkers: A relational perspective. Journal of personality and social psychology, 110(6), 869.
Rudman, L.A., & Goodwin, S.A. (2004). Gender differences in automatic in-group bias: Why do women like women more than men like men? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 494-509.
Unerman, Sue and Kathryn Jacob, The Glass Wall, Profile Books, London 2016