Are Women Competitive Enough? Competition: It’s Good For You

Power struggle

By Blake Landau (Blogger, What’s Your Story)

Editor’s note: Apply to the Women 2.0 PITCH Startup Competition for early-stage startups with at least 1 female on the founding team. Deadline to apply is November 30, 2011.

When I was a kid, I was your average millennial — by which I mean I was on a tight schedule of brownies, soccer practices, Hebrew school, mall outings and birthday parties.

In the context of AYSO soccer games, I was scary for someone only three and half feet tall. My face was bright red from running. My dad called me “the terminator.” I would roll up my sleeves and destroy anyone in the path of my little size 1 cleats.

As the Terminator grew up, I unfortunately never channeled this competitive energy toward planning for my future.

I didn’t practice doing budgets as a child. I never thought about what I would be when I grew up. It didn’t occur to me that the values of the people around us in Orange County might be a little different than in other places in the world. I never tried to locate Malawi on a map.

It wasn’t my parent’s fault, they’re good people. It just wasn’t popular to drive the message home that girls should have some kind of plan for their future. At least, no future that was bigger than keeping your figure, meeting a nice boy, and trimming the rose hedges. Even in 1995 the messages given were not “one day you will have to provide for yourself, and this is how you will do it.”

While I was a very competitive little kid, I was competitive about all the wrong things. I wish that I’d gotten excited about math when I was a child, that I’d gotten excited about saving money for the piggy bank, or anything other than Barbies and subsequently, Nordstrom. I regret that where I grew up girls weren’t competitive about being providers for themselves and their future — instead of ripping each other to shreds over the local version of US Weekly’s Who Wore It Best. This is how one wakes up, 25 years old, and living far from home. Broke, anxious, hating dependance — on a person or a system — and feeling stuck.

Women Are Great Competitors

Women are competitive about our clothes, our weight and the men we date. We are so busy competing about our own objectification that we give our power away. And we are participating in our own demise by continuing to reinforce these negative stereotypes by embodying them. For women trapped in this cycle, the saddest part is that they can’t even see it.

A study out of the University of Chicago reports that men are 94% more likely than women to apply for a job with a salary potential that is dependent on outperforming their colleagues. According to the author, “a number of recent laboratory studies show that men are, by nature, more competitive than women.”

We have to stop talking about the challenges and start discussing solutions to help us become more competitive:

  • Are we encouraged to compete?
  • Are we given arenas within which to compete?
  • Are we given coaches?
  • Do we have examples of competitive women in front of us?

Where Did My Arena Go?

MissRepresentation is the brilliant OWN documentary that discusses depictions of women in the media. I watched it recently was touched by the story of Condeleezza Rice, 66th Secretary of State and now a Stanford Professor. She conveyed the time that President Bush was making amendments to Title IX.

Title IX was created in 1972 to bar gender discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal funds. Some called Bush’s move an “underhanded way to weaken Title IX and make it easy for schools that aren’t interested in providing equal opportunity for women to skirt the law,” including Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center.

Rice said, in her quiet tone, and I paraphrase, “Mr. President, you can’t reverse Title IX. I mean, that would make you a complete ass. You don’t know what it was like to have to fight like we did to even get through college.” [note: these were not her exact words, as Condie Rice would never say the word “ass”!]

The changes to Title IX were intended to make it easier for schools taking federal money to appear compliant with Title IX while offering a greater number of athletic opportunities to men than to women. While supporters of some men’s teams praised the changes, many women saw this as a major step backward for women’s rights.

I look at policy changes such as this one and I question, could it be a systemic problem that women don’t compete like men do?

The Case For Competition

Rebecca Woodcock, co-founder of Cake Health, talks about the importance of competition for women founders in her article “Frenemies: Why Competition is Good for your Startup.” She argues that competition is good for women for the following reasons:

  1. Competition validates your crazy idea.
  2. Competition makes you step up your game.
  3. Competition heats up the space.
  4. Figuring out your competitors’ business model helps you define yours.
  5. Points of differentiation could make you potential partners with your competition.

Also from the article:

“For a couple of months, my co-founder and I got comfortable. We were progressing, but it was at a comfortable pace. We had time. Then I started getting information about a competitor from many different sources, including launch and fundraising, and we were running out of time. After we became more motivated thanks to healthy competition, we accomplished more in the month prior to launch than we had in the previous few months. Was it painful? Actually, we had more fun than ever before.”

In the digital age, those of us who grew up using Facebook have had certain luxuries. If we don’t feel like meeting people in person, we don’t have to. If we want to sit in our pajamas all day with our coffee while Sex and the City or Animal Planet or Sanjay Gupta blares in the background, we can.

But there are problems with getting too comfortable. Competition is key to our development. We need to compete to get our ideas organized, to actually see the gestation of our plans and follow through on them. We need to take risks, we need to fail, we need to win, and we need to do all of it in a structured environment where we can get feedback.

Get Out There And Compete — Be The Terminator!

Start with the upcoming Fifth Annual Women 2.0 PITCH: Startup Competition, open to early-stage ventures around the world. The deadline to apply is November 30, 2011.

Startup applicants must have a female in the founding team, be in beta stage, and have received less than a million dollars in funding. First 100 applications to PITCH are free, thanks to Bing!

Questions? Send email to [email protected].

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

About the guest blogger: Blake Landau is a blogger, speaker and consultant living in the San Francisc Bay Area. She’s worked with brands such as Verizon Wireless on social media, branding, public relations and marketing. She started her career in customer strategy building Customer Management IQ, a social networking site and online business publication. She loves her running and book clubs. Blake blogs at What’s Your Story?. Follow her on Twitter at @BlakeLandau.

  • Zsa Zsa

    Competition is indeed our key to development. Without it, we can’t really test ourselves, our limits. Healthy competition keeps us on our feet and helps us grow!

  • Blake Landau

    Thank you Zsa Zsa. I appreciate your comment–we need to always test ourselves and our limits. You are absolutely right! BL

  • Chilgirl

    One main reason women shy away from competitive behavior is the treatment women generally get for acting that way. While a competitive man is considered assertive, strong, a leader, those same traits and actions in a woman are often called bitchy, ball-busting, confrontational. That means we don’t just have to compete, we also have to put up with a lot of backlash from society when we do.

  • Gerard E STEIN

    I have 4 daugters and I can assure you = you should be welknown because you are a very good role model for all young women
    Thanks to be what you are

  • Anca

    Every voice raised that encourages women to enter the traditionally male-dominated business world and get us to compete in that arena provides an opportunity. Thanks for this article.

    But it’s going to take a bit of ball-busting confrontation – followed by demonstrable financial success – to create examples for other women to follow. And it’s also going to take women who are self-aware enough to eschew participating in that “social backlash” – because our voices are part of the problem there.

  • Adena


    Loving this article. I can 100% relate, down to having dreamed of one day being able to make enough money to buy clothes in the trendy section of Nordstrom.

    I don’t think anyone should budget women in one group vs men when it comes to competitiveness by nature vs nurture, but I can’t help but be torn on my own enjoyment vs terror when it comes to competition.

    Many women are trained to fight to the death for someone else, but not for themselves. When it comes to competition in business, whether you run a company or work for one with direct competitors, I often get a sense that women, myself included, are less comfortable with (meaning less motivated by) competition. While my male colleagues often get ramped up over competitive talk, I find myself thinking about a world where everyone could win. Of course, I still want to win, I just hate making anyone else lose, unless there’s good reason.

    The stat on how men are more likely to chase a job where their salary is based on performance is very interesting — I realized lately that I enjoy sales a lot and think I’m quite good at it, but I would be absolutely terrified to take on a sales role with a quota. There are a lot of women in sales, though I’m not sure if in tech sales this figure is much less. But I do know that a lot of the people (mostly men) who I’ve seen work their magic in sales are very competitive by nature. It works really well in business, in sales and in starting your own company. Maybe that is, ultimately, something woman don’t have in them — by nature, or, more likely, nurture. The question is… should we fight it, and try to be more competitive, or use our strengths in other ways?

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  • Kim @moneyandrisk

    Aside from the areas that you address. Women are very competitive with each other in business. I get stories from women executives frequently about the women in their companies who try to sabotage them.

    The mindset for women starts with our parents and it starts very young. Our value systems are set by them and by the people we see around us.

  • jackie gleason

    This is a great post. Its important for women to know that it’s simply OK for them to compete. True, many girls grow up competing about the wrong things, but even for those you fancy themselves properly competitive ladies, the driving spirit is often suppressed under the weight of “evidence” suggesting that aggressive women fair less well than men in the business world. Fighting those types of attitudes means changing the way society views women in general.

    I always fought to be the smartest in the class, so I can’t exactly relate to the story told in the article; nonetheless it’s made recognize something else about my self: that I’ve cultivated a self-deprecating side (meant to balance my aggressive personality) that might be doing more harm than good by appealing to the soft prejudice of lowered expectations from others.

    Healthy competition is a key ingredient in development at all stages, and I whole-heartedly support any effort to spread that message that women can, and should, compete.

    Thanks, Blake. Great post.

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  • Blake Landau

    Thank you so much for all your comments.

    @Chillgirl this experience today made me think of yoru comment.

    Today I thought of you–I was in the weight room at a gym in Los Angeles (it’s Thanksgiving). As you know most women seem to avoid the weight room and stay on the cardio machines. I went over to use a piece of equipment an older gentleman was using because he left the area. Well let me tell you he came right back and was absolutely furious. I seriously thought this guy was going to hit me in the face for taking his equipment. “I just went to go get water, you saw me and took my space, get out of here!!! (big angry red face, sweaty and generally evil). I took one look at him with eyes of anger and walked away. But ten minutes later after he left that area, I went right back and finished my weight routine. I wasn’t going to let this hyper-testosterone head ruin my work-out. I told myself, this is why women don’t do the weight room. Because men act like this. The key is to not get intimidated. You have to keep going no matter who is telling you you are in their territory. You have to go after what you want.

    If you’re ever feeling timid, sad or generally sorry for yourself, listen to Tom Petty “Won’t Back Down.” remember the lyrics…”you can stand me up at the gates of hell and I won’t back down..” #NowPlaying Tom Petty – I Won’t Back Down on @Spotify

    @MoneyandRisk yes women sabatoge each other but why do you think they do this? In my opinion women feel there are a limited amount of opportunities at the top so they fight each other to maintain any positioning they currently have. They don’t have the “land of plenty” type of attitude.

    @JackieGleason Please take care of yourself out there and don’t fall into the self-deprecating trap. Have you ever tried to run up a hill telling yourself at the same time that you’re a weakling? I’ll tell you it’s very hard. That hill becomes much steeper. If you tell yourself you are amazing you will find your challenges much easier to tackle. Life is hard enough, who needs that critic on your shoulder making it even harder. XXX

    @Adena If you think you would be terrified of having a quota, have a quota. We need to push ourselves out of our comfort zones, every day. You will find that the mental road blocks you have created for yourself and easy to break down. And what you find behind them is usually incredible.

    @Gerard. I love your comment. Thank YOU and Rock on!

    @Anca Once women get out from under the thumb of economic dependence they will find they are in a completely different game. It won’t be “ball busting” confrontation. You will be able to keep your cool. Imagine Donna Brazille who once said, If you want a seat at the table, take one!

    I love you all. Keep fighting the good fight.

  • Kim @moneyandrisk

    @Blake The lack of opportunity may be the reason in some cases but I think that it’s more environmental conditioning and a myriad of other reasons.

    Women are conditioned to compete with other women for looks, friends, and men. Look at the value systems that girls are taught. Appearances, clothes, jewelry, attention and men are a high priority. Jealousy and envy is not discouraged.

    It may be hard for some women to break out of this knee-jerk reaction when they interact with other women because it is so unconscious.

    Ask any female executives about problems that they have had with their female assistants vs. the fawning that those same assistants give to the men. Competition for a position doesn’t even enter into that equation.

    Last year, one of my executives brought in a female 2nd in command. He was concern because his entire division are all women and their positions are about equal. His new lieutenant lasted exactly 4 months before she was driven out by hostilities from the staff.

    None of these staffers could have competed for her job. Her responsibility was to bring in and negotiate contracts with public corporations and government entities so that he could be free to travel for international negotiations. She was hired for her contacts, network and experience over 20 years which none of the staffers have.

    These are some of the feelings that can cause competition between women: jealousy, fear, lack of confidence, envy, and uncertainty. It doesn’t matter at what level.

    I will never forget the first time I approached a woman to be my mentor. She ripped me to shreds and attacked me verbally on every level. The essence at the end was that she prefer to help and support men. Considering the fact that it would take me a good 15 years to even approach her level, I don’t think that she considered me true competition in the workplace for her.

    However, the experience did scar me emotionally. I did not expect such hostility from a woman before. I had expected to be courteously declined with some pointers for the road.

    I’ve never made the mistake again of assuming that every woman will automatically have feelings of sisterhood such as I do. (Well I try.)

    My old mentor and sponsor was the CEO of my previous firm. Looking back, I recognized that he was very careful in the women that he recruited. All had strong self confidence and competition with each other was there but it was the healthy competition for promotion and recognition that extended across the firm. It had nothing to do with gender. (He once told me that the model for his choices was his wife.)

    It’s hard to explain in a small post response but that old firm had major competition. It was cutthroat but in the ways of business. I knew that Christie and Sandra were after me just like they were after Cary and Dave. It wasn’t personal. It was about who was going to get the top spot and no holds barred. We were on defense and offense all the time because the firm was growing and competition was fierce and nonstop. It was exhilarating.

    That’s a different experience from dealing with competition from people who are supposed to be your support or allies but who stabs you in the back.

    I agree with you that women need to compete and challenge ourselves more. What I would add is “choose your battle and fights”. Pick the ones that matter and are important to improving your situation.

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  • Blake Landau

    I am so sorry to hear about the experiences you’ve had in your offices. You are right that there is healthy competition, and then there is very unhealthy competition that destroys characters, careers and self-esteem.

    The only advice I would have is to continue to network and network and network until you find that mentor who will coach you in the way you need it.

    “choose your battles” is definitely a mantra I stick to, because if I didn’t I would be fighting everyone all the time.

    Because I feel life is short, I don’t waste my time with people who I don’t feel are “evolved.” I want to be around people who inspire, challenge and support me. Unfortunately the women who spend their time tearing each other to shreds will probably never dig deep and truly discover themselves. This has to happen before you become truly successful. But then again I am a fan of Joseph Campbell “The Heroes Journey.”

    What women don’t realize is how much time we are wasting tearing each other to shreds. We don’t realize the system we work and live in encourages this kind of behavior, and we do nothing to counter this unfair predicament.

    Thanks for the commentary. Feel free to email me any time at [email protected]

  • KC

    Hi Blake
    I love this article. Such great food for thought, and much truth in what you share.

    I really appreciate you sharing that women could venture into more competition with each other – and in a way that ultimately is fun and produces great results. I’m reminded of the great byline for the Wall Street Journal: “Adventures in Capitalism”. It’s a game, with a lot of emotional intensity involved at times.

    I believe the key to supporting women in engaging in more competition is to also recognize that women are really in their full power when there is an element of FUN and CONNECTION in the process. I don’t say that flippantly. There’s a deep river there.

    I know many women, myself included, who have said that there is actually a lot of competition in the business world between them, and an inner “begrudging” of one another if the other really shines and is successful (and feeling bad about oneself).

    I had this experience at an early age when I got waitlisted at a college that a dear friend was rejected from. She wouldn’t talk to me for three weeks. I learned early on from that experience that success is great, but can be dangerous and include losing the love of someone I cared about deeply. This experience had me feel more held back in really going for success for fear I’d lose women friends.

    So I think that the key thing in bringing about a healthy competition amongst women to the game of life is to first instill a sense of celebration of one another for our successes. And keep reminding and teaching girls that success is abundant, and one woman shining in the world does not mean that you can’t or that you aren’t.

    Only then can we enjoy a healthy, fun and productive sense of competition and play in our professional and creative lives. Otherwise, it’s no fun, the love of women in our lives seems to be at risk, and since women are truly relational creatures, they will continue to shy away from competition with one another.

    Thanks for sparking this great discussion!

  • Rosalyn Fay

    It is being shown scientifically that oxytocin is the female “productivity/prosperity” hormone. In men, it is adrenaline. So, it makes sense that men feel motivated and succeed when they compete, as competition produces adrenaline in their brains (very useful in hunter/gatherer times). Women have evolved differently. We have found success (and survived) when we collaborated and felt our own unique contribution to the tribe which gave us a sense of belonging (less likely to be thrown out if you’re contribution is valued). So, first I think it’s important that women stop looking at the way men do things as the recipe for their success. Competing and utilizing adrenaline might produce results in the short term, but ultimately I believe it will lead to burn out. Women are, by nature, extremely social, and so competition can never be a lasting motivating factor.*

    I love KC’s point above and I would add to that, that what has motivated me most as a woman and as an entrepreneur has been competing with older versions of myself. Comparing or competing with other women has always left me feeling inadequate in some way and alone. Sure, it might get my blood pumping and give me a boost of adrenaline to move faster, be more productive and find out what is going on out there, but it’s never been a lasting motivation. Ultimately what has motivated me over the long term has been the satisfaction of observing my own growth personally and professionally over time, and collaborating with other women. Being the best ME I can be has resulted in a strong sense of my self and a higher self esteem knowing how far I’ve come. When we engage with the world/marketplace and with our work from a place of shining in our own unique brilliance, how can anyone ever compete with that? Yes, there might be others out there who are doing something similar but they will never do it the way you do it.

    People/consumers are attracted to what stands out, what uniquely shines and I believe the best way to shine is to create from a place of pure inspiration. I think it’s important to question our motivation in regards to our work. What is the driving force? Is it a love for what we’re doing or something else? I believe we will produce and create with greater satisfaction if we do it because we love doing it and our work inspires us. Ultimately success is a matter of feeling good about who we are as individuals, standing in our integrity and expressing our authentic selves through what we create. An added bonus is that it is non-threatening and it gives others permission to do the same. When we have a population of women challenging themselves to be uniquely creative and the best versions of themselves, there’s not much need for competition and we can easily celebrate each other’s successes.

    *See Dr. Sugar Singleton’s work here:

  • Blake Landau


    Thanks for your comments. I can imagine when you were younger and you got wait-listed at a certain college and your friend didn’t, it was a bummer for you that she reacted the way she did. To be honest I would imagine this woman was insecure and selfish, to not be able to see past her own ego to support you. On a related note, the truth is the school doesn’t matter so much as the attitude of the student.

    I like your research about women and the conditions in which we work best. I feel like I’ve taken a different road, working for myself, in a field that’s somewhat “tech.” As a woman it’s personally been hard for me because you are alone a lot, and you don’t have a lot of the validation and community that you might have in a different corporate environment. I think no matter your situation, a successful person seeks out what they need in different situations. Being able to ask for help is so key critical.