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I’ve had a few conversations recently about collaborative women and competitive men.

The first was with someone who works in international development who said that there was no future for men, that for every problem he saw in developing countries the answer was a woman. (I think, hope, he was being deliberately provocative.) One of the unique strengths he saw in women was their ability to collaborate to solve problems, while men compete.

The second was with a friend over differences between men and women. He cited a colleague who had given the same task to a group of women and a group of men. The women had worked together from the start, while the men’s priority had been to establish who was leading the group first. The two groups had achieved similar outcomes but had done it very differently and he took that as evidence that women collaborate while men compete.

The third was with a friend who runs an organisation for a target audience. She has had conversations with a group of women who want to set up something very similar. She would be keen to work with them, but they want to go it alone. She feels this group are conforming to a male stereotype of being competitive and that it would be much better to collaborate.

The subtext of all three conversations is that collaboration is good while competition is bad, and that women are somehow better because we collaborate rather than compete. I’ve been thinking about a few things in response.

Firstly, I have nearly fifty years experience of being a woman and I find it astonishing that people think that women aren’t competitive.

If you have ever watched or read interviews with top-level sportswomen like Victoria Pendleton, Rebecca Romero, Chrissie Wellington, then you will know that women are competitive.

If you have ever been at a parent and toddler group or had conversations with other mums at the school gate over how their children are achieving, you will know that women are competitive.

If you have ever worked with women leaders who have fought hard to gain power and will be damned if they’re going to pass it onto anyone else, you will know that women are competitive.

If you have ever read those magazines that idolise celebrities one week only to tear them down for looking less than perfect the next, you will know that women are competitive.

If you have ever been in a mums’ race at a school sports day or taken part in a summer league race like I did yesterday, you will know that women are competitive.

And what about those men who have initiated very collaborative ways of working – Dan Thompson who was instrumental in the 2011 riot cleanup and We will gather, Jimmy Wales who founded wikipedia and Richard Reynolds who has been one of the pioneers of guerrilla gardening in the UK to name a few. Are they really being untypical?

Women who are competitive are not being masculine; it’s what we’ve always done but perhaps in different arenas and in ways more hidden because it’s deemed less socially acceptable.

Secondly, I don’t think competition is a bad thing in itself. It can spur people and organisations on to achieve better things, solve problems, become more effective, evaluate more carefully, address issues and reduce waste. Of course it can quickly become toxic when it overshadows everything else, when people are out to win at all costs and use others to get to the top. But I don’t think it’s automatically a bad thing to set up something new rather than combining forces with something existing. It can help both groups think through their distinctives, their vision and purpose and evaluate whether they are meeting a need. However, I do think women need to be particularly aware of what’s going on when our competitive edge is combined with a struggle for influence and opportunity, and actually what we’re doing is staking out our territory and building our profile because we’re afraid of being overlooked or overwhelmed.

And then I wonder why we persist with these false dichotomies that set one trait up against another, and one sex in opposition to another, as if they are poles apart and mutually exclusive. We are not robots programmed to only operate in one way; we are humans who have a range of responses open to us and sometimes we will choose to collaborate, sometimes we’ll choose to compete, and sometimes we will creatively weave both together. I’m loving watching the Tour de France at the moment and there’s a heck of a lot of collaboration going on in that very competitive race.

Photo: Jonny Baker

4 thoughts on “Competitive women and collaborative men?

  1. Wise words as ever… I’m sure there is room for competitive men, competitive women, collaborative men and collaborative women… But aren’t we all both of these at different times, as the task or moment dictates?… My three children; 2 girls and 1 boy demonstrate this to me constantly, as do my school students.. Depending on the task they either compete or collaborate, but I NEVER consider that one sex is the competative one and the other collaborative!…

  2. I agree, Jenny, and am aware that it’s too easy to generalise (everyone does that – chuckle) … when we allow others to be who they are, our worlds are much better for it.

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