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.