Com­pe­ti­tion not an ex­clu­sive men’s club

The West Australian - - AGENDA - Lanna Hill

I’ve been to quite a few net­work­ing events for women in busi­ness re­cently and at each one, the is­sue of gen­der di­ver­sity has come up. It’s a con­ver­sa­tion that pre­dictably un­earths a num­ber of smaller sub-is­sues — fe­male con­fi­dence, gen­der stereo­types and the gen­der pay gap.

Some­thing else that of­ten gets men­tioned is com­pe­ti­tion among women and, specif­i­cally, how women com­pete.

“Women shouldn’t be com­pet­ing with each other,” says one of the women at my ta­ble. “There’s enough op­por­tu­ni­ties out there for ev­ery­one.”

Says an­other: “We should be lift­ing each other higher, I don’t com­pete with any­one”.

And therein lies the prob­lem. It is my be­lief that the way women are con­di­tioned to com­pete plays an in­te­gral part in the gen­der in­equal­ity is­sue. Think about it. Men are en­cour­aged to com­pete in all ar­eas of life, in quite a di­rect way — on the sport­ing field, in the work­place and even for women. It’s nor­mal for men to com­pete with each other and, what’s more, they are very up-front about it.

It’s not an is­sue for two men to com­pete like war­riors on the sport­ing field, yet share a laugh and a drink off the field — no hard feel­ings.

Women on the other hand are con­di­tioned to com­pete in an in­di­rect, some­what covert way, and we are pay­ing the price for it. Not only have I heard count­less sto­ries of women re­sort­ing to un­der­handed, bitchy tac­tics to get ahead of the pack, I have per­son­ally ex­pe­ri­enced it.

Women so of­ten will shy away from ad­dress­ing is­sues di­rectly — whether they be ask­ing for a pay rise, tack­ling bul­ly­ing be­hav­iour head-on or even ask­ing for what they want in their per­sonal lives.

The re­search into this area is fas­ci­nat­ing and backs up the masses of anec­do­tal ev­i­dence in this area.

Ac­cord­ing to Bos­ton-based re­searcher Joyce Be­nen­son, com­pe­ti­tion between women is car­ried out in three dis­tinct ways. First, be­cause women are ge­net­i­cally pro­grammed to pro­tect them­selves from phys­i­cal harm (to pro­tect their re­pro­duc­tive or­gans and en­sure they can bear chil­dren), they rely on in­di­rect ag­gres­sion to­wards other women, through ver­bal at­tacks or group tac­tics.

Sec­ond, women with higher sta­tus need less help and pro­tec­tion from other women, who rep­re­sent a po­ten­tial threat. There­fore, a wo­man who tries to dis­tin­guish her­self from the pack threat­ens other women and will en­counter hos­til­ity. In­ter­est­ingly, a com­mon tac­tic used to deal with the threat posed by a very beau­ti­ful or ac­com­plished wo­man is to in­sist on uni­for­mity and equal­ity — oth­er­wise known in Aus­tralia as the “tall poppy syn­drome”.

The fi­nal way women are known to com­pete against a po­ten­tial threat is through so­cial ex­clu­sion, which is thought to have evolved from in­creas­ing their chances with sur­round­ing males.

This idea that women shouldn’t com­pete, that we should rise above it in some way, is in my opin­ion a huge con­trib­u­tor to the prob­lem.

Com­pe­ti­tion is a nat­u­ral part of hu­man be­hav­iour and pro­motes growth, in­no­va­tion, change and re­silience. Women need to em­brace this and start claim­ing what is theirs, rather than wait­ing pa­tiently (and silently) for some­one to give it to us.

My own per­sonal jour­ney with com­pe­ti­tion echoes this. Af­ter be­ing bul­lied in pri­mary school, pri­mar­ily at the hands of other young girls, and con­se­quen­tially grow­ing up quite dis­trust­ful of women, I spent a decade in a highly com­pet­i­tive male-dom­i­nated en­vi­ron­ment.

While there were only a few of us, the women in the busi­ness were ei­ther sex­u­alised or “writ­ten off” and were of­ten pit­ted against each other in male dis­cus­sion in the work­place. De­spite know­ing how wrong this was, I in­her­ently wanted to fit in and be seen in a favourable light and of­ten avoided speak­ing up in sit­u­a­tions where I knew I had some­thing to of­fer.

Now, in my 30s, I rel­ish the chal­lenge of com­pe­ti­tion and I am not afraid to stand out or to be seen as a threat by oth­ers. In fact, se­cretly, I hope I am.

Lanna Hill is a busi­ness coach, speaker & MC, me­dia com­men­ta­tor and mum of two. She is the founder of One Small Step Busi­ness Coach­ing.

Zoltan Ko­vacs is on leave

Lanna Hill is not afraid to stand out.

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