It’s often said that women are difficult to figure out. Since I raised four boys, I consider myself fairly unqualified as an expert in the psychology of girls and young women.
However, now that I have been gifted with three granddaughters, I am learning a little more every day. What I see as I watch them grow is sometimes disconcerting.
I spent two weeks this summer with my granddaughters, ages 9 and 4, and noticed one dynamic immediately: these girls are competitive and spiteful to one another in ways that I never noticed with my boys. Unfortunately, that attitude carries through to the professional world as girls become powerful, influential women and seize leadership opportunities that have previously been unavailable to them.
Of course, a little competition between peers can be an excellent motivator and inspire high-quality work. But bickering, hyper-criticism and cutthroat pursuit of success do little to empower women in the workplace. These actions reinforce negative stereotypes of women as emotionally adversarial and self-serving professionals who will stop at nothing to get their way.
I don’t believe this issue is limited to my lovely granddaughters or even to girls specifically, but my experience is indicative of a larger trend among women in the workplace. Women tend to be critical of one another; elevating and exploiting flaws and weaknesses in order to gain a competitive edge.
Harvard psychologist and author Lynn Margolies explores this topic in her writing and suggests the competitive dynamic is a self-preservation mechanism underpinned by women’s deep distrust of the power of other women.
“Discomfort with their own power can make women alternate between inhibiting themselves to protect a female friend, and feeling mistrustful and helpless in the face of another woman’s perceived destructive power,” Margolies writes. “A good example of this is when whose husbands have had an affair blame the other woman more than they blame their spouse, holding the other woman more accountable — and seeing men as helpless in the grips of a desirable woman.”
I got my start in business by way of the nursing profession, an environment where there is much greater solidarity among women than in many other careers. This may be due to the care-driven nature of the work or the fact that nursing is a field dominated by women. That may also be why I have high expectations for camaraderie and teamwork between the women in my current workplace.
My own leadership style is rooted in empowerment and compassion. While I do have a competitive streak, I tend to view competition through a supportive and positive lens as a healthy team-building tool. Our entire staff is devoted to the people and companies we serve, but most importantly we are all devoted to each other and to our collective success.
Workers’ compensation is serious business, but we strive to bring an approachable, accessible personality to the process. Inspiring our entire staff — including the women on our leadership team — to collaborate, cooperate and demonstrate respect each day is a huge component of our culture and an incredible value to our clients.
Professional women must stop being their own worst enemies and begin embracing our fellow businesswomen’s strengths, celebrating their accomplishments and championing a culture of affirmative motivation, not competition for its own sake. As soon as we begin assuming positive intentions from each other, we’ll send an immediate message to our daughters and granddaughters that we don’t need to tear each other down to come out on top.