Women in Business

Success In the Workplace Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

Success In the Workplace Is Not a Zero-Sum Game
Image credit: Matt Winkelmeyer | Getty Images
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When you're a woman in a male-dominated workplace, you wouldn't expect that your biggest enemy would be another woman. Unfortunately, that can sometimes be the case. When you're in a male-dominated environment, you don't really see many women leaders at the top. It can be easy to feel, even subconsciously, that  the opportunities to advance are limited. Studies show this can sometimes lead to in-group competition -- especially if you're in an already highly competitive workplace. It's understandable that this feeling should happen given that the deck is still stacked against women in the workforce. But getting women into senior leadership roles is not a zero-sum game, and this unarticulated mindset is toxic and undermines both individual women and the collective efforts to achieve equality in the workplace.

This topic is tough to talk about. It can feel like you’re perpetuating the stereotype that women are catty in the workplace, and that stereotype isn’t true. There’s also bound to be competition in the workplace among women (also among men and among men and women), and it certainly doesn’t always stem from this mentality. On top of that, studies show we can sometimes take competitive behavior more personally when it comes from another woman than when it comes from another man. Sometimes, competition is just competition and not a personal or even subtly gendered slight.

Related: How Top Companies Aim to Close the Gender Gap in Tech

That said, there are some work environments that can cultivate unnecessary ingroup competition among women, and it’s extremely harmful to the overall cause of advancing women in the workplace. It can be uncomfortable to discuss, but if we don’t address it head on, we can’t resolve it. It’s crucial that women realize that that this is in fact a problem, accept it, understand where it’s coming from, and finally, fix it. Doing each of these things is key to advancement for all of us.

The perception of a “zero-sum” game.

Unconscious bias can unfortunately be just as prevalent among women as it is between genders. Consider, for example, a woman in a leadership position who has maintained a senior role in a male-dominated industry: She might not even consciously think about it, but she could feel threatened by another woman “encroaching” on on her “territory.”

A  perception of a “zero sum” game is often the root of this problem. Women can sometimes subconsciously think that there are only so many seats at the table for their gender, so therefore one woman’s success has to be at the expense of another woman’s.

Related: 5 Ways Both Sexes Can Help Solve the Gender Gap in Silicon Valley

On the surface, the numbers would appear to support this. Women make up only 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of top earners, and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. Staggeringly, these statistics have changed relatively little since the 1990s. According to the Center for American Progress, “the percentage of women in top management positions and on corporate boards has stalled.” Women account for less than 9 percent of top managers, the percentage of women on U.S. corporate boards has been stuck at around 12 percent for a decade, and women’s representation on Fortune 500 boards hasn’t budged from 17 percent in eight years. At the rate we’re going, it will be 2085 before the women’s leadership gap is closed in the U.S. When we’re not gaining market share in these senior positions, it’s easy to fall unintentionally into the mindset of a zero-sum game.

But reacting to these bleak numbers by undermining other women’s professional accomplishments is counter-productive and self-defeating. If anything, doing so only creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: it’s hard to make real progress reducing the leadership gap when women compete with each other with the zero-sum game mentality. Rather, women should advocate for each other and work to change this dynamic when they see it.

And let’s not forget for a moment that the “zero-sum game” perception and ensuing behavior doesn’t just affect equality in the workplace: it’s also just plain bad business. It’s 2016, and we know that companies with women in leadership roles enjoy greater profits.

How to end the “zero-sum game” perception.

So the question then becomes what can we do counteract the unhealthy competitiveness that results from the perception of the “zero-sum game.”

The first step, of course, is to be aware of it and be proactive. Acknowledge it when it happens to you and hold yourself accountable when you have undermined another woman’s success. This is not something to shrug off or sweep under the rug -- it’s too toxic, insidious, and ultimately damaging to look the other way when one woman slights another’s professional accomplishments.

Related: It's Time to Close the Workplace Gender Gap

Here are a few tips for constructively dealing with unhealthy ingroup competition among women:

  1. Question your first reaction. As women, we are often conditioned to be agreeable, and our first instinct can sometimes be to remain passive and quiet, and feel self-doubt, even when undermined. Your first reaction might be to think that you “deserved” the criticism, or if you’ve said or done something to undermine someone else, you might not slow down to think about how a sense of competition has fueled your actions.

  2. Talk about it openly. Focus on the business outcomes rather than the personal outcomes. Frame the conversation in terms of how this behavior impacts and is bad for business and how at the end of the day we’re a team and have the same objective.

  3. Don’t retreat. If you share a boss, the offender could well be in a position to mold his or her impressions of you if she’s competing for recognition and you don’t speak up for yourself. Stand your ground and take the time to work through it. Conversely, if a co-worker suggests that your behavior is unhealthily competitive, don’t immediately dismiss it without slowing down to check in honestly with yourself.

  4. Find projects that you can co-lead with other women in order to create room for a new dynamic. Particularly when your skill sets complement each other, this can be a great way to promote healthy collaboration, demonstrate how important it for more women to come together, and ultimately show the effect women leaders can have in the workplace. 

  5. Create more ways for women to meet, work together and mentor one another. It’s crucial that women form bonds with other women in their organizations and across organizations. The two of us actually met on a work project, but since then have started an executive women's dinner group that meets quarterly and discusses a variety of topics. (In fact, this article idea came from one of these conversations.) We’re always looking for and actively talking about ways to better ourselves as women leaders and build positive relationships among professional women in general.

What the future could hold?

What does the future look like, where unhealthy competition among women isn’t an issue? We both have no doubt that if toxic competitive behavior among women were taken out of the equation in the workplace, businesses would be more collaborative and successful overall. When women work well together, amazing things happen, and we all know that diversity overall drives innovation. With every step we take to support and promote each other’s careers, we get closer to shattering the glass ceiling once and for all. Getting to the point where women lead businesses just as much as men depends on supporting each other, not unnecessarily fighting each other.

It’s important to take this knowledge to work with you every day, and have it inform every working relationship you have with other women. Professional success is not a zero-sum game for women, and only good things can come from supporting each other at each and every turn.