As part of my research on women and feminism for my new book, I came across several articles – most notably those in the UK Telegraph and The New York Times on the topic of Why Women Compete with each other.
In brief, the obvious starting point is evolution and the process of ‘natural selection’ which I believe occurs equally in both men and women i.e. we try to find a mate. In so doing, we have to outperform any female competition and we thus compare, compete and inadvertently or not often undermine and undercut one another. A Psychology Today author reveals that ‘the male view of women as primarily sexual objects becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As women come to consider being prized by men their ultimate source of strength, worth, achievement and identity, they are compelled to battle other women for the prize.’
Feeling on guard around other women as we search for a partner is fairly standard for most women. It’s flipping exhausting actually. As a teen finding a boyfriend a few years older (with a cool set of wheels too!) relieved my agony for a short while but I certainly did not escape the common occurrence that someone who was one day my bestie could the next become my worstie.
At varsity I found that the male sex was far easier to befriend. Less complicated or competitive and I seemed to have dodged much of the ‘indirect aggression’ and catty, bitchy stuff which so sadly undermines so many friendships amongst girls. But then I have never been a ‘girlie kind of girlfriend’ and always wondered why two girls would always needed to go to the toilet at the same time- let alone in the same cubicle!
And then in the workplace, the not-so subtle competition takes on a further dimension: not only do you need to fluff out your feathers (peacocks have nothing on us girls) with our shirt skirts and pert parts, we also have to show that we are equal in intelligence and grit to men and are thus competing on both fronts.
Of course, the reality is that often ‘our negative response to other women is a projection of how we feel about ourselves. For many of us, we look at other women and see, instead, a version of ourselves that is better, prettier, smarter, something more. We don’t see the other woman at all… And we turn on her anyway, because it’s easier’ writes Emily V. Gordon for the New York Times.
But adding to this is a further interesting article which suggested that the decades- long battle for equal pay and derision of the ‘old boys’ networks (largely absent in female corporate life) in an attempt to obtain power parity in the workplace in fact has another spoke in the wheel: other women.
Studies suggest that women battle with the concept of female competitiveness and do not take it in their stride as easily as men who view competition as a healthy, natural and acceptable part of life.
Women intrinsically value harmony and the appearance of calm and thus one of the factors keeping her back is exactly the thing that feminism is fighting so hard to achieve: the ability to deal effectively with competition from other women.
‘Women take competition with other women much more personally than men take competition with other men. At the same time, women should be aware that taking competition too seriously could be holding them back from leadership positions ‘ explains the article.
And then of course the mommy wars. Oh the messy, mommy wars. Women extend their competitive cheer to the school grounds and ‘compete’ with their brilliant offspring: initially, who has a greater vocabulary or walked at 10 months rather than 12: later, who plays for more A- teams and plays the piano, trumpet AND flute AND does tap dancing from 5-7pm, in addition to winning all the class medals for both languages, PLUS history , geography AND art and design: who got accepted for ALL their choices at varsity and is dating a ‘drop dead’ doll too.
Fortunately, fortunately this all starts to melt away slowly as we reach that 50- something factor and women start becoming really lovely. Women’s competitive spirit –not within themselves since this is something separate and will continue or not, based on health, temperament, passion or whatever- against other women is replaced with genuine warmth, support and companionship.
We suddenly become concerned that soon our parents will die too and we feel the heartache of those who endure this before we do; we dread the departure of our grown teens and notice a universal pit in our stomach at the thought when someone else’s leaves before ours do; we are more empathetic to those who suffer strained finances and marital mayhem.
We finally begin to understand what Emily V Gordon proposes in her article that ‘when we each focus on being the dominant force in our own universe, rather than invading other universes, we all win’.
In short, we become lovelier.
Women’s month has come and gone and I’ve been wanting to get this post out.
Now I have.
Happy Spring Day on this the 1st day of September from a beautiful, warm South Africa to all you wonderful women.
And the wonderful men who walk with us.