Is competing like a man the answer to women’s equality in business? Yes, says psychologists Coren Apicella and Johanna Mollerstam. In a recent NY Times column, they present research about women’s hesitancy to engage in competition, and make recommendations for how women can be encouraged to compete more.
Many studies in different cultures across the globe and in a variety of contexts find that men are more competitive than women. It’s not black and white— there are some women who compete more than some men. But overall, men engage in competition more often than women. When a gender difference is so consistent, this supports the idea that there may be a biological component to it.
In their study of 1200 men and women, Apicella and Mollerstam interestingly found that although women were less likely to choose to compete with others, they were equally interested in competing with their own past performance as men were. So based on this outcome, the authors suggest that managers first encourage women to compete this way to increase their productivity and achievements. They also propose that doing so will create a confidence base that will encourage them to compete against other employees in the future.
So the idea is that women could get more raises and promotions if they could just be convinced to compete more, meaning act more like men. And I understand this on a practical basis – this is how many businesses are set up. But as a feminist I have to wonder, is this the best we can do? Is becoming like men the only answer? What about the system at large? Rather than changing ourselves, should changing the system be our goal?
This difference in strategies in how to create better opportunities for women is reflected in two different kinds of feminism: liberal feminism and radical feminism. Liberal feminists say we can play your game. Women have the same potential as men to excel. If you allow us to get educated, and gain experience, we can do just as well as men in any profession. We can work the hours, make the deals, and work our way up the hierarchy if you will simply let us.
Radical feminists on the other hand say, your game is a stupid game. Why is a male-oriented, hierarchical, high-risk, workaholic game the only model for organizational success? It exists because for most of history, men have had the power to fashion the game of success so it rewards their tendencies and abilities. Radical feminists say we want a new game. We need to convince people to value feminine traits like collaboration and co-operation combined with prudent risk taking.
And Sally Krawcheck, former CEO of Smith Barney and Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, and the current CEO and Founder of the global professional woman’s networking group called Ellevate, says it hurts women when they try to emulate typically male behavior at work. An openly ambitious and assertive woman is commonly seen as a bitch. So when the experts tell women they need to compete with men, they are putting women at risk for a backlash. It’s a no-win situation. In Krawchek’s book, Own it: The Power of Women at Work, she discusses women’s traits that contribute to a profitable bottom line. Women bring a focus on relationships to the workplace and make decisions based on “taking in more information.” “Smart companies, smart managers manage everybody from where they are, where those people are,” Krawcheck says. “We’re able to guide, and coach, and pull the best from them.” Perhaps a model that acknowledges the different ways that different kinds of employees can bring their best to the company should be taught in business schools, and encouraged by human resources management, rather than a male-size fits all approach.
I understand the urge to work within the system that currently exists. We live in the here and now, and want to succeed. But in the long run, working to change organizational culture and management style may benefit women and profits.