women-fighting-in-salesWomen and competitive behaviour

Whoever says women are not competitive and aggressive clearly has never been to any women’s clothing store during a January sale. Shopping during the sales is not my natural habitat and although I would consider myself to be reasonably competitive, in this environment the classification of total wimp could be legitimately applied. Negotiating the millions of shoppers in Central London or any other major city after Christmas to my mind requires full- on assault training and the wearing of S.W.A.T. style body protection. And this was before I knew that someone had been stabbed to death on Oxford Street on Boxing Day.

Covert or cat fight

Many women are competitive about their homes and their children’s achievements. Others are sexually competitive with other women for the men of their choice, and sometimes men they wouldn’t even look at once, let alone twice. They do it because they can. It is the ultimate  “oneupwomanship”. They are competitive about their recipes.  I have one French friend who will only give out her to-die-for “moelleux au chocolat”  recipe when one of yours passes muster. Needless to say,  I’m still waiting! Women and competition occur in the same breath and activities as diverse as hairdressing,  BMI,  postal codes,  gardens in egg cartons and the whiteness of their whites.

Leora Tanenbaum, in her book Catfight, points out that women have always competed, but primarily with each other. Despite the assumption that women are “relaters,” she asserts that women are conditioned to view each other as adversaries rather than as allies.  This is not to say that women and competition are mutually exclusive. Historically, there have been few arenas in which women could compete,  so they have  been forced to focus on the areas with which they are familiar. Being attractive, marrying ” well”,  giving birth to strong and healthy children and creating perfect  homes. Competition between women has therefore traditionally been less public, but playing out in full force nevertheless and not to be underestimated.

Derogatory connotations

The word compete is rooted in the Latin “cum petere” meaning ” to strive together“.  Somewhere between the decline of the Latin language and the 21st century,  being a competitive woman has taken on derogatory connotations.  Two men slugging it out whether physically or metaphorically, becomes a sight to behold or feared, while two women, who are conditioned to put others’ needs first, doing the same thing,  is regarded as a ” bitch fest”  or “a catfight“,  with nowhere near the same gladiatorial status or even interest.

In Bittersweet, Love Envy and Competition in Women’s Friendships, Susie Orbach and Luise Eichenbaum describe the differences in male and female competition. Girls form relationships (the true meaning of ” cum petere” perhaps?), while boys are raised to assert themselves over others. “Whereas women search for self through connection with others, men search for self through distinguishing themselves from others.”

So is the woman who strives for success by being individual in the corporate world (a male behaviour),  turning her back on the real meaning of “striving together” and putting her own needs first?

In so doing, she’s upsetting two apple carts at the same time: the first belonging to her fellow women by not playing the connect and support game as she should.  And secondly the male cart belonging to the men who need to find a way to send her back whence she came.

But what women have to accept is that it’s OK to win and it doesn’t necessarily mean not collaborating.




About Dorothy Dalton

Dorothy is an International Talent Management Strategist, social entrepreneur and Co-Founder of 3Plus. She works on both sides of the executive search spectrum from” hire to retire”, specialising in sourcing hard to find candidates for executive search firms and international organisations, career transition coaching and training .