I am a very competitive woman.
The source of my competitiveness likely derives from being an athlete in my formative years or perhaps it’s because I have two older brothers I was always trying to impress growing up. Whatever the reason, the truth remains that I am super competitive, even in the most trivial of circumstances.
To illustrate: At a bridal shower recently I coaxed the mother-of-the-bride into saying “wedding” so I could win the fake diamond ring or veil or similarly wedding-themed tchotchke that she received at the beginning of the party.*
(**I suspect most women in their 20s and 30s are familiar with this party game, but if not, here are the details.You’re welcome!*)
I once took issue with the outcome of a baby shower game because – and I’m not proud of this – the great-grandmother-to-be clearly made a mistake when assigning points and it impacted the final score. Coincidentally, this mistake meant I took second place rather than my rightfully earned first.
At this point you’re probably thinking 1) this girl goes to too many showers, and 2) why does she care so much about winning those little prizes?
My response is 1) yes, I do, but I love everything about showers, babies and weddings so don’t feel bad for me, and 2) you’re right, winning another scented candle or Starbucks gift card isn’t important, but I’ve come to realize that for me it’s not about the prize it’s about the competition. I love to compete.
If I choose to play a game, even a small or silly one, it goes against my instincts to not try my best. Some people may not understand why I take a game of pick up basketball so seriously, meanwhile I don’t understand why everyone else doesn’t.
Given all this, I have always found it difficult to accept the so-called common knowledge that men are more competitive than women. While I’d like to deny it as a sexist sentiment, it turns out there’s actually data to back this up. In studies conducted by the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business, Stanford University and the University of California at San Diego, researchers found that at all ages, boys/men do choose a more competitive route than girls/women in the same situation.
Ok, so it’s likely true that when given the choice to compete, men opt in more than women. But why? One of these studies, conducted by Stanford professor Muriel Niederle and Alexandra Yestrumskas, unveiled evidence that women often choose not to compete because of an age old barrier – lack of confidence.
Here’s how the study worked – both male and female participants were given an easy maze to complete. Upon finishing they were given the option of taking on harder mazes for a more complicated pay out that, if done well, would yield a hefty reward, or continuing to pursue easier mazes for a more modest sum. Men who excelled at the easy maze chose the harder route 100% of the time. Meanwhile, women who were equally as good only chose the more difficult route 65% of the time. In fact, even 88% of the men who did poorly on the easy maze chose the more competitive option. The researchers concluded that women were deterred in part by a lack of confidence in their abilities and therefore chose a route with which they felt more comfortable.
That rings true even to a woman as competitive as I am.
A few years ago I heard about a high level position opening up at a company with which I worked closely. My husband immediately said “You’d be perfect for that job.” It’s hard to recollect my exact reaction, but I know it was something along the lines of “You’re crazy, that position is out of my reach” and we left it at that.
A few months later I was approached for that very job. They said I was an excellent candidate and they would have asked sooner but they didn’t think I was interested. Wow, what an eye-opening moment for me. Even with my competitiveness, I suffered from a lack of confidence and chose not to compete.
Back to the maze study for a minute – the researchers found in follow-up studies that if they informed participants on how they did and explicitly told them they were high performers, women became twice as likely to choose the competitive track! All they needed was a little boost to their confidence, an outside opinion pointing out their own achievement.
So how can we take this information and do something with it? This is where we all have a role to play. Together as friends, mentors and colleagues we can assure other women that they are qualified, that they do have what it takes, and even if they don’t check all the boxes in a job listing, they should still apply. It’s important that we act as external validators, as those closest to us may be dismissed when they express the same confidence, as I dismissed my husband’s initial encouragement.
While it’s important to encourage each other to be more competitive, we should not conflate competitiveness with success. The most competitive person does not always win (trust me, I know this well!). It can be an edge and create an incentive to perform, but having that competitive drive does not itself yield the best outcome. Or rather, it shouldn’t, though sometimes the environment is built in such a way that competitive behavior itself is rewarded.
This is where those of us who are managers should be cautious about creating work environments that unnecessarily reward competition in and of itself. Of course there’s a place for this in some fields, such as sales, but most jobs do not require a competitive spirit to be successful. As Dr. Uri Gneezy suggests in his study with the University of Chicago:
“CEOs creating incentives in their firms should be aware that making the internal environment more competitive might create a bias that helps men, while putting women at a real disadvantage.”
There is much work to be done to improve conditions for women within highly competitive fields, but the first step is to encourage more women to try for those jobs in the first place.
It doesn’t matter how competitive you are, if you aren’t joining in the game, you can’t compete at all. Some games you’re automatically entered into just by showing up, like at a baby shower, other games you need to make a choice to participate.
As women, we should be each other’s champion, providing our friends with the confidence they need to opt-in and compete. You won’t win them all, but as the old adage goes, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”.