Female Competition in the Workplace

All of the hullabaloo about the NYT piece popularizing Dr. Sarah B Hyrdy’s work on female indirect aggression makes me think. Jess Eagle already skewers the too easy leaps of logic made by the Times writer, but something about this topic, forces me to dig deeper. The idea that sexual competition, or attempts to attract and keep mates, comprises the predominant form of competition between adult women seems laughable to me. My immediate work environment, with equal numbers of female and male faculty, and the larger pool of the entire University, with not-so-good numbers of female faculty, engenders competition between women and other women, but not so much between women and men. Current initiatives to train female faculty in leadership skills and mentor them into leadership roles appears to only exacerbate this skewed competition. Mind you, I do not blame the people conducting those important efforts or women themselves. We are hearing other somewhat conflicting messages that drown out or twist the leadership training. For example, in the past five years, a number of associate thises and associate thats (mostly associate deans) have been created and most of those positions have been filled – pointedly – with women. Yet the number of female deans (one) has remained exactly the same, despite turnover in two or three colleges. The President and Provost positions have turned over as well, and subsequently filled -surprise- with white men. Thus, women on our campus have been trained that they may dutifully compete with each other for these secondary roles, but the big prizes are still reserved for the be-penised.

This example points toward a different explanation of female competition to me. Girls and women are indeed taught to compete for boys/men/mates, which places lesbian women in a particularly confusing and unhelpful context, but this training serves to channel all female competition, at school, at work, in sport (compounded by the strict separation of boys and girls teams) toward other girls and women. Men are, both metaphorically and systemically, on a completely different playing field. Women compete with each other because we have  been disallowed from competing with boys as children. In college when young people are developing career skills and perhaps modes of competition, women’s and men’s sports teams are still separated. We compete with each other because we have been trained to compete with each other and then repeatedly reminded that we do -in articles like those that popularize Hyrdy’s work. Women do not see much possibility of being invited onto the boys team and their field / stadium nor are we offered any reason to make an attempt to compete with people viewed mainly as mates or oppressors. And what well trained hetero woman would turn around and compete with her mate after she has been told to compete for him? Rewriting the rules so that competition between men and women is both possible and fun, the way true competition can be, should be our aim.