Women shouldn’t have to feel bad about competing with each other

Belarus’ Maryna Zuyeva, left to right, the Netherlands’ Annouk Van Der Weijden, Poland’s Luiza Zlotkowska and Canada’s Keri Morrison skate during the women’s speed skating…
Belarus’ Maryna Zuyeva, left to right, the Netherlands’ Annouk Van Der Weijden, Poland’s Luiza Zlotkowska and Canada’s Keri Morrison skate during the women’s speed skating…
Image: Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP
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In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg acknowledges the history of women’s hostile competitiveness with one another in business—one fictional example is the aggressive, merciless female executive played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. But Sandberg tells us that this attitude existed mostly in the past. Nowadays, she writes, women are eagerly supporting their female colleagues, not undermining them in order to protect their own success.

Yet, during interviews with nearly 200 women that I conducted while writing a book about women and friendships, many women have described a different experience.

A successful businesswoman who is active in an organization that supports young female entrepreneurs and potential executives told me that she found men more trustworthy than women. “They’re just more open about competing,” she said. “And they don’t take it so personally. Women get all sneaky and manipulative and mean. It’s like they don’t want to admit that they’re competing, so they go underground.”

A former college athlete said, “When we were playing as teammates we were all very supportive of each other. But when you separated us, there was lots of snarkiness.” As the feminist psychoanalysts Susie Orbach and Luise Eichenbaum put it in their book Between Women: Love, Envy, and Competition in Women’s Friendships, the “sisterhood” image of women’s friendships sometimes obscures the complex and occasionally hurtful feelings that are also part of these relationships.

Competition is alive and well among women, but unlike the characterization of the competition Sandberg described, and in these examples from my interviews, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. In fact, the feeling many women have that competition is shameful actually makes the results of jealousy and envy worse.

To the contrary, finding a way to integrate competition and rivalry with loving, admiring, and nurturing feelings toward the same person can be difficult, but extremely rewarding.

What competition?

Ruth Moulton, who wrote about women’s psychological issues in the 1970s, explained that the qualities of pride, aggression, and self-regard that go along with success were, at the time, antithetical to feelings of femininity, which were associated with selflessness, nurturing, and modesty. Forty years later, many of us continue to feel uncomfortable when competitive issues surface in our relationships with other women.

Even among the youngest women I have talked with, it seems that competitive, envious, and jealous feelings are hard for many women to manage in general, and particularly difficult in friendships, where we expect​—and are expected​—to be supportive and caring above everything else. So we simply refuse to admit these feelings exist.

The women I spoke with had several ways through which they and their friends avoided acknowledging competition between them. They included:

One-downsmanship: Many women allow themselves to compete openly only in a way that is almost a contradiction in terms. This is “one-downsmanship,” a competition in which the winner is the person who can present herself as the biggest loser: “Why would anyone feel competitive with me? I’m the worst, the unhappiest, the most unsuccessful, or the ugliest of anyone I know.” An office manager, for instance, told me, “Women I report to, who make a lot more money and have a lot more power than I do, tell me things like ‘I’m so stupid’ and ‘You’re a genius at this kind of thing’ when what they mean is ‘Don’t be mad at me’ or ‘I need your help, so be nice to me.’ ”

There are several problems with one-downsmanship. First, when it is genuine, it indicates a self-loathing that makes it difficult for others to engage with you. And second, it can sound (and sometimes is) false. This level of self-deprecation can seem like an attempt to get others to tell you how wonderful you really are.

Hiding strengths: Why would you need to hide your strengths from your friends? It almost seems to be a contradiction in terms, since friends are supposed to be strong for one another. Yet many women do precisely this. We downplay our strengths in front of our friends, to protect them and to protect ourselves.

Many of the women I spoke with said that they sometimes hid their successes from friends in order not to make friends feel bad about themselves. Others told me that they were aware that if their friends resented them too much, it would destroy their relationship.

Downplaying compliments: There is an old joke that a woman may take hours getting dressed, but if you compliment what she is wearing, she will respond not with “Thank you,” but with a self-deprecating comment like “What, this old rag? I just pulled anything I could put my hands on out of my closet.” This denial of value, whether concerning our job, our house, or our appearance, combined with disbelief that anyone really admires us, can color our friendships in surprising ways. Like the old Groucho Marx joke, “I wouldn’t belong to a club that would have me as a member,” women sometimes fall into the trap of believing that anyone who chooses to be our friend must be flawed ​— ​otherwise that person would not want to be friends with us.

Reframing competition as a compliment

Honest competition can be good for our self-esteem and for our friendships. If a friend is good enough to compete with, then she is also someone we can admire, appreciate, and learn from. It is possible to integrate competitive feelings into close relationships. The first step is to acknowledge the feelings and stop seeing them as something bad.

Pat Summitt, the former coach of the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball team, who won more games than any other NCAA Division I basketball coach, male or female, probably understood what went into healthy competition better than most women. She once said, “There is always someone better than you. Whatever it is that you do for a living, chances are, you will run into a situation in which you are not as talented as the person next to you. That’s when being a competitor can make a difference in your fortunes.”

Many of the women who I interviewed had come to similar conclusions.

Kim, a thirty-two-year-old marketing director, told me that she and her best friend were also competitive. “We love each other,” she said. “And I don’t think we compete exactly the same way that guys do. Sometimes we don’t realize what’s happening until we get into an argument, and then one of us will laugh and say, ‘Oh, I just wanted to be better than you on this one.’ And the other one will always say, ‘You’re so good at so many things, could you let me win this time?’ And that will be the end of the argument and whatever bad feelings were going on.”

A number of women said that they felt less competitive as they got older. But many told me that they had learned to find other women who were comfortable with who they were; they didn’t try to outdo one another or hide their successes. A writer in her late sixties told me, “I finally got close to women when I was living my adult life. We were raising kids together, and I just began to feel trust. I found a group of strong women who felt good about themselves. They weren’t competitive, they were just wonderful people who were interested, curious, and had a strong sense of identity. They weren’t struggling to be smarter, to get ahead, prettier. Judgment was lessened.”

Women also told me that they had found friends who were comfortable with competing. “We just don’t see it as all or nothing,” said one woman who was a rower in college and is in a highly competitive tennis league as an adult. “Whether you win or you lose, whether you play a lousy game or an excellent one, none of it changes who you are as a person. There are some women who get so tied up in their game that they forget that lesson. But,” she laughed, “the group I play with won’t let anybody get away with that. Everybody has strengths and everybody has weaknesses. If we can’t work that into our relationships, then we can’t enjoy winning.”

The more directly we acknowledge competition, the less likely it is that we will resort to underhanded or manipulative behavior when they emerge ​— ​sparing us toxic feelings and damage to our self-esteem and our friendships.

This article has been adapted from I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women’s Lives.

This story is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more stories here.