To Win at Work, Let's Stop Competing With Men

Reaching pay equity and leadership parity doesn't have to mean playing by men's rules.
To Win at Work, Let's Stop Competing With Men
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Executive Vice President of Innovation at RingCentral
5 min read
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If we were actually keeping score of the "who is winning at work" game, men appear to have the lead. Women earn 79 cents to the dollar, despite education levels, compared to men. While roughly half of the U.S. workforce is women, only a quarter hold the coveted "chief executive officer" title. Females received only 2 percent of venture capital dollars in 2017.

Related: 10 Pieces of Advice I Wish Every Woman Could Hear

But, the score hasn't always been this lopsided. Amazing and diverse women have played an instrumental role in advancing technology since it became a field. Throughout history, women have faced under-representation in positions of leadership and underpayment for their work, but that hasn't stopped us. As the tables continue to turn and women speak out and speak up, it's clear that women are working their hardest to tie the score, despite the obstacles we face.

But, here we are, staring inequality in the face. What must we do to win? Generally speaking, men seem to have no problem doing what it takes to get ahead at work, as the numbers show. Do women have to be willing to compete at work to reach pay equity and leadership parity?

A social experiment

Research suggests men are more competitive than women. In one Harvard research study, participants were separated by gender into two groups, then asked to perform a simple mathematical equation. They were offered compensation in either a non-competitive, piece-rate compensation fashion, or in a competitive tournament incentive scheme. Men were two times as likely as women to select the competitive tournament compensation scheme for their task. Despite changing the level of performance or capability of participants, women remained 38 percent less likely than men to select the competitive option.

Furthermore, the same researchers found that low-ability men entered the tournament too often and high-ability women were hesitant and didn't enter often enough. The researchers summarized the tournament entry gap in two ways: "male overconfidence and differences in preference for competition."

Related: As a Woman Business Owner, You May Find It Hard to Confidently Take on the Role of CEO

This evasion of competition does not bode well for women in today's working world. Sales teams use competition as a way to motivate and even pay employees. CEOs tout phrases like "beat out the competition" and instill the idea that if you're not on top you're failing. But, what about all the women who, as the Harvard study suggests, might lack the confidence of their male peers or prefer less competitive roads to career progression?

Two professors, Dr. Coren Apicella and Dr. Johanna Mollerstrom, also examined innate gender differences to figure out if and why women shy away from competition, and whether or not this was a causal factor in pay and leadership inequity. They were aiming to answer the question: Can women even be as competitive as men when others weren't involved? Or in other words, if you remove men from the picture completely, would women be competitive with themselves? The short answer is, yes. Apicella and Miollerstorm declared, according to their findings, that "creating opportunities for self-competition in the workplace ... is one way to make women equally competitive as men."

In it to win it

Turns out that competition, when harnessed in the right way, is good for women. The Harvard researchers suggest bosses steer competitive pressure to focus on self-improvement and mastery rather than competition among colleagues. It's important for women to understand their progress at work relevant to their past performance, and not get swept away when their colleagues are simply leveraging competition as a way to stay motivated. Try working with your manager to set personal and professional goals to create a benchmark for self-competition.

For women looking to advance their career and achieve equality, be aware of the female propensity to shy away from competitive situations. You just might need to jump in to get ahead. Take a lesson from your male peers: You don't have to be perfectly qualified to try something new. Many workplaces are set up in a way that make competition truly unavoidable, and it's OK to jump in head first even if you feel like you won't win, or that you're underqualified.

Related: 4 Proven Ways Women in Male-Dominated Fields Can Establish Themselves and Feel Fulfilled at Work

Lastly, senior leadership must begin to pay closer attention to why women are having such a hard time breaking into the upper echelons of management. It's not that there are no women, or even that us women are underqualified. The path women must take to get to the top is often paved with situations that many women would otherwise try to avoid.

A rising tide lifts all boats. Let's starting working together to create cultures where all employees, regardless of gender or any other difference, can work together and not against each other. Managers need to challenge their employees individually and individuals who want to be on the fast-track to advancement need to challenge themselves. This is how we can all win at work.

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