May the Best Woman Win

Should you treat competitors like a man?

Two women are comparing career trajectories, one complaining that she was stalled for two years, until she finagled a lateral move. The problem? Her boss.

Turns out, “the man” wasn’t keeping her down. Her boss was a woman.
From glass ceilings to mommy wars, with on-site day care, maternity leave and sexual harassment policies, we have been adjusting to two generations of women entering the workplace. Their impact on office culture, business ethics, productivity, pay structure, flex time, and, in particular, the men who moved over to make way for them, has been exhaustively documented.

Now we’re starting to talk about their effect on one another, and it’s a particularly testy topic. Sad but true, some people say that a woman’s worst workplace enemy can be another woman. Is there validity to this?

After all, females blocking females is a dangerous perception. It reinforces a stereotype of the woman executive as insecure, easily threatened, overly emotional, and unable to focus on achievement because she is preoccupied with squelching younger talent. In this scenario, female managers are all hard-edged Bette Davises, with an eye out for the rest of us incipient Eve Harringtons, turning the workplace for women into one hell of a bumpy ride. But it may be that women simply overreact to the shock of competition from female colleagues. Women expect, and therefore tolerate, competition from men, but maybe we’re caught off guard when we get pushed by someone who is supposed to support and mentor us. Take this knot of gender stereotypes, combine it with the fuel of ambition, set it in a corporate milieu, where progress is a game of musical chairs, and you get an environment that, at the very least, strains the cooperative relationships among women.

Consider just some of the forces pushing us hard against one another:


“Yo, Bernie. How’s about bringing that bison over to my cave?”

Since the beginning of social organization, female survival and the survival of their young depended on how well they could compete with other women for the resources that men could provide. Surely such competitive instincts are hard-wired. Why would they not surface clearly in the gladiatorial arena of the office?

Female Gender Expectations

Title IX (the landmark 1972 legislation banning sex discrimination in U.S. schools) and other opportunities are creating emotional openings for the development of healthy competitive instincts. Still, women train primarily for and highly value the cooperative skills so necessary to maintaining family and community. Open competition with one another is a direct violation of these social expectations. A man after the credit or the clout is, traditionalists say, only being a man. But a woman concerned with the same rewards may be considered a backstabber.

Male Gender Expectationsp

Whereas women expect another woman to be “nice” and are fiercely critical when she’s not, men often view young, inexperienced women as professionally “weak,” and they can be hugely supportive as a result. He’s a hero rescuing a damsel.

Her female colleagues, however, may recognize power beneath youth much earlier than their male counterparts and so have a wary eye.

The result?

Women report that male colleagues are more available as mentors right up to the point when they achieve professional parity, but the belief that women are tougher on other women has been reinforced.

Limited Resources

Enormous progress has certainly been made, but leadership opportunities for women are still limited. (Sometimes the limits are both unspoken and vehemently denied, since they are, after all, illegal.) Women rising through the ranks nonetheless are acutely aware that they are competing mostly against one another for the smaller piece of real estate available to them. As such, realistic women eye one another as more of a direct threat and act accordingly.

The Motherhood Dilemma

As mothers, women are built-in competitors.

he unspoken issue that informs all the other female workplace relationships is a woman’s mothering choice. We reassure ourselves that we’ve chosen right by seeing the choices of other women as wrong and bad. Inside the office, single women sometimes begrudge the extra privileges of time and understanding claimed by those who are mothers, while mothers resent the lack of empathy sometimes displayed by the childless. Turned against one another, women waste time undermining one another’s progress.


Meanwhile, husbands and fathers cheerfully put in their time at the office, openly competing for promotions and plum assignments and then treating one another to lunch afterwards. They think about competition differently, and it works for them. The office is but another field on which to prove your merits.

So is there something we can learn from men?

Maybe women are a little harder on other women, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It’s just business.