It has been a long-standing— I want to say stereotype— but the reality is that it’s been a long-standing truth, that women have been put in a place to compete against one another. We saw this in the 1800s when women were in competition to be seen as the “best” mother. We saw this (and still see this) in the Miss America pageant, where women compete to be the best “woman” in this country. Then it carried into the workplace when there had to be one woman in leadership to meet quotas because heaven forbid there was more than one woman at “the table.”
History has established a “you or me” attitude. But why can’t it be a “you AND me” attitude?
The truth is there’s a deep-rooted psychological background to support this. Noam Shpancer says this in a Psychology Today article exploring female competitiveness:
“Cutthroat female competition is due mainly to the fact that women, born and raised in male-dominated society, internalize the male perspective (the ‘male gaze’) and adopt it as their own. The male view of women as primarily sexual objects becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As women come to consider being prized by men their ultimate source of strength, worth, achievement and identity, they are compelled to battle other women for the prize.”
Now, I’d like to think we’re beyond trying to battle other women for the “prize” of a man (gag), but there’s something to be said about hundreds of years of this mentality baked into our psyche.
It begs the question, did we place these preconceived notions on ourselves or were they placed on us and we adopted them and adapted to them?
I think it’s a bit of both.
There’s no question that women have been suppressed and legally have not had the same rights as men. We all know this conversation is changing, but we still have a long way to go. So we know when you’re the underdog, you’re fighting an uphill battle. But that being said, I think we’re also at fault for adopting these notions and not questioning them sooner.
And I’m embarrassed to say I’m guilty too.
I spent eight years building my career in Chicago. If you’ve spent any time in Chicago, you know it’s easy to get wrapped up in the never-ending, one-thing-after-another, whirlwind that is the Windy City. While I’m grateful to the opportunities and experiences I had and people I met during this time, part of the rhythm that keeps this city alive is a layer of competition and relentless ambition, not just across industries, but also, at times, within the same gender.
After almost a decade in Chicago, I was ready to come home to Milwaukee and expanded my company a bit north at the very end of 2017. However, in doing my research, I wanted to know who my new competitors might be. So I researched digital marketing agencies in Milwaukee and then I took it one step further and researched female-founded digital marketing agencies in Milwaukee. That’s who I decided was my true competition.
Again, I’m embarrassed to say this was my mentality as I began starting to seek out how to establish myself in Milwaukee. However, that quickly changed after Lori Highby, President of Keystone Click (a female-founded digital marketing agency in Milwaukee), agreed to have a glass of wine with me.
Lori has successfully been running an agency for eight years longer than me and I was eager to understand how she’s made it this far.
However, that night, Lori and I didn’t have one glass of wine.
We had like a bottle or two of wine because we had the absolute best time.
Lori was (and still is) amazing. She was so open and willing to share insights and resources with me and she had absolutely no reason to do so. For all intents and purposes, we were competitors, but she was so willing to help out another female agency owner and build a genuine relationship and friendship and for that night, and her friendship, I am eternally grateful.
Lori was the first woman in this industry to lend a hand, pull me up and offer me a seat next to her. And my preconceived notion of her, and anyone - especially female-founded agencies, being my competition immediately dissipated. Because the reality is there’s enough work for everyone. And when one of us wins, we all win.
Two months later, Lori and I co-presented at a speaking engagement for Women’s Entrepreneurship Week and three months after that we bunked up for a creative female entrepreneurs summer camp in the dead of summer with no air conditioning. It’s safe to say, if our friendship wasn’t solidified before that weekend, it sure was after it.
Two years later, we’re having conversations about reviewing each other’s proposals to help one another close more business. We text each other when we hit a business crisis and need backup. We bitch about how hard this entrepreneurial journey is but confirm we wouldn’t have it any other way. And we still come back to our wine dates. But now, it’s not a networking opportunity, it’s a lady date with my badass fellow female entrepreneur friend, Lori. And she happens to be one of the only people I know who understands the challenges of being a female agency owner. And I will never be able to thank her enough for her kindness and friendship.
I know I’m not alone in feeling this female competition and I do think the environment is changing. But the question is, how the hell can we stop competing and start intentionally collaborating?
While there are close to a bajillion reasons why we all should adopt this mentality of collaboration over competition, here are four opportunities you can adopt to begin building momentum:
- Shift your mindset.
Reshma Saujani’s, Founder of Girls Who Code, TED Talk “Teach girls bravery, not perfection,” talks about the evidence that women have been socialized to subscribe to gender stereotypes. She elaborates, saying, “most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure. We're taught to smile pretty, play it safe, get all A's. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and then just jump off headfirst.” She’s so right! We’re constantly surrounded by others saying that women can’t be a wife, a mother, a friend, a daughter, and have a career. But where there’s a will there’s a way. Women can have their cake and eat it too and it’s partially a societal mindset shift, but it’s also an individual mindset shift. Why play it safe? Why not have everything we want? We’re a bunch of badass ladies. Let’s make shit happen, together.
- Get involved.
Look around and see what other female-focused entities are in your city, industry or nonprofits. Whether it’s volunteering at a nonprofit that supports women and girls or joining the board of an organization that promotes the professional development of women or starting a female-forward book club with ladies in your area you’d like to get to know, there are all kinds of ways to reach out and connect with other women. Find something that works for you, gets you excited, aligns with your beliefs and values and go do it, lady!
- Be a mentor.
Find a young woman you believe in. Someone you think has great potential. Maybe you see a little bit of yourself in her. Whether you become an official or unofficial mentor, supporting her to help build her career will pay off dividends. Set up time to meet every four to eight weeks and touch base on what’s going on in her personal and professional life. Sometimes just knowing you have someone who cares can make all the difference. If we all make small steps to pay it forward, the sum of all the parts will end up changing the conversation.
- Be an advocate.
For all women. Collaborating with other women can strengthen and even expand our ventures. Partnering with other women sparks growth and pushes us all closer to success. Buying from and teaming up with female business owners supports their business, furthers their growth and helps to build momentum for all parties involved.
Some of the greatest opportunities may come from one woman rising up and choosing to take other women with her. Supporting and celebrating other women strengthens all of us— and there’s nothing stronger than the bond between women who are united.
We just launched a new brand whose core belief is “lift as you climb.” I think this is a simple way of saying that, as women, we have a crap ton of mountains to climb, and the only way for us all to get to the top is to bring others up along the way.
And the sooner we adopt this mentality, the greater our achievements can become. The greater our achievements become, the more noise we begin to make. The more noise we make, the more publicity we get. The more publicity we get, the more opportunity we have to be heard. The more we’re heard, the more we gain power. The more we gain power, the more we make change happen.
Kiley Executive Coach & Consultant
Kiley Peters is a serial entrepreneur, national speaker, executive coach, and small business consultant. Having personally counseled over 100 small and medium-sized businesses on operations, business development, digital marketing, and consumer behavior analysis over the last 17 years Kiley is incredibly passionate about serving small business owners. She is the Founder and CEO of Brainchild Studios, a research and business strategy partner for small businesses and mid-market executives, and also created the Work From Home Playbook, a series of online courses guiding aspiring entrepreneurs through the steps of starting a virtual business. With these experiences in her back pocket, she understands the challenges and struggles small business owners encounter.more posts by Kiley →