Women have long claimed that they are unfairly held back in the workplace. However, men are not always to blame, a study claims.
Women often struggle because they find it hard to compete with other women – a result of never being taught to challenge each other as girls.
University College London researchers say that when female workers are in competition with each other they become angry and stressed. This could harm their prospects at work – either by causing demotivation or by leading to mean streaks coming out.
Management expert Sun Young Lee carried out a series of internet and lab-based experiments into how the sexes handle competition.
For example, the volunteers were asked to imagine they were competing against someone for promotion and then asked how they felt afterwards. They were also placed in pairs and pitted against each other in typing tests in which the winner would be given a bonus. The women found the tasks much more upsetting when they were vying against other women.
Writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Dr Lee said that from when they are very young, girls are brought up to be caring and sharing. Boys, in contrast, get used to the rough and tumble of competitive sports.
This inability to handle competing against another female could lead to a drop in performance, Dr Lee said.
Or it could allow a woman’s mean side to surface – and for fights to ensue.
She said: “As a woman who has worked across the world, I’ve long observed that women take competition with other women much more personally than men take competition with other men. My research provides support to such an observation. Bosses need to be aware that competitive career structures that are effective to men may be detrimental to women. At the same time, women should be aware that taking competition too seriously could be holding them back from leadership positions.”
Dr Lee said her research could help explain why female-dominated environments are often thought of as being mean, nasty and catty places to work.
“The negative portrayals of work relationships between women are puzzling in the light of the ‘women are wonderful effect’, according to which women are generally seen as kinder and more caring than men,” she said.
Studies also suggest that women are less competitive and aggressive than men and that they like each other more than men like each other. If women are the nicer, less competitive gender, and they have more positive attitudes towards each other, why are their same-gender work relationships often characterised as competitive and troubled?
The word “catfight”, for example, is typically used to describe competition between women but not competition between men or between women and men.
“More generally, women’s work relationships with each other are often seen as problematic.
“My speculation is that women grow up in a climate with other females, sharing secrets or playing with dolls and so they don’t have a clear perception about how to compete against the same sex.”