Journalist Sheila Weller triggered the gossip machine with her new book The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour—and the (ongoing, Imperfect, Complicated) Triumph of Women in TV News, when she reported on C-word #1: competition between the three female newsmedia icons.
Couric’s flippant comment that Sawyer must have traded sexual favors to land a coveted interview was THE sentence in the triple biography that hit multi-media headlines. In truth, the book is full of fascinating social history with well-rounded profiles of three women whose breakthroughs changed the media’s face forever.
Predictably, C-word #2: catfight raised its back and hissed at all womankind. Weller asked my opinion on the paradox that when women compete it’s a catfight as contrasted with men, for whom competition brings applause, promotions, and serious money. Here’s what I replied.
The very compound word “catfight” buys into two timeworn stereotypes.
First, that women are felines in the sense of being stealthy or treacherous (with not-so-oblique reference to slang for the female body parts to which women have historically been reduced as a primary way of diminishing us).
Second, that women inherently don’t support other women. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just look at the prevalence of women’s political collaboratives like Emily’s List or women’s funding networks such as Women Moving Millions in philanthropy (at whose annul conference I will be privileged to speak this week) and Golden Seeds in the entrepreneurial space.
Yet, both men and women persistently say, “Women are their own worst enemies,” and the media Mean Girls trope reinforces those time-honored stereotypes. We ingest these images and they affect our self-perceptions and therefore our behaviors. This is reinforced by the male model finite pie definition of “power over” others rather than the limitless “power to” do good things in the world.
We’re all socialized in the same culture, have similar implicit biases or blind spots. That’s why both men and women tend to think “man” when they think “leader.” This in spite of the fact that women are clearly not the problem but the solution to a variety of woes in business, politics and even saving the environment.
Which brings us to the third C-word: the C-Suite and what it takes to get there.
Women’s ambivalence about embracing power is linked to that traditional definition of power from which spring our culturally accepted female roles as nurturers and supporters rather than leaders. Break your gender stereotype and you will be punished by being dismissed, disparaged, and, by the way, less likely to get that promotion. This is called “stereotype threat.”
So not only do women risk losing treasured relationships when they compete as fiercely and directly as men do, they risk being punished for the very thing men are rewarded for. As a recent study by University of British Columbia researchers found, when women compete in the workplace, they are judged much more negatively than men who compete.
Why can’t we call different opinions among women “principled disagreements?” And why can’t we call vigorous workplace competition among women “striving to reach personal excellence?” Really that’s what they are. Positive use of conflict, controversy, and competition have become three of this “nice girl’s” favorite things because I learned the hard what that’s how you get people to pay attention to your ideas, create better products, and make sustainable social and organizational change.
Studying dozens of organizations that help women run for office (and that for decades have hardly moved the dial toward parity) made me notice that the same lack of progress was happening in the business world, and in personal relationships. That in turn motivated me to write No Excuses and then start Take The Lead.
I found that despite doors being open, women were reluctant to walk through them because they resist embracing the power embodied in head-on competition owing to the cultural punishment that comes with breaking their gender stereotype. Cracking that code is the next necessary step on long the road to full equality, and what Take The Lead’s programs such as our upcoming online certificate course in women’s leadership will accomplish by 2025.
Weller also asked me whether women agonize about the burdens of competing with other women when collaboration is historically our survival mechanism. I think we do. Often we agonize largely because we so want to be liked, to be seen as “nice” which our mothers told us to be and for which we were rewarded as girls. Guess what—it turns out that women leaders’ ability to balance competition with collaboration is a huge plus in today’s world.
This is our opportunity to create a #4 C-word narrative: strategic collaboration. In life and leadership, I suggest it’s the secret sauce behind those glowing, female driven, leadership outcomes, and why the world is crying out for more gender balanced leadership.
What are your thoughts? I’d love for you to share your observations and experiences about this intriguing topic with me.