Guest Blog: Elle gets REAL about workplace competition

So we all know that the majority of workplaces are constructed in inherently competitive ways. While we all do group projects in our classes and grad roles to try and teach us how to ‘work in a team’ we still are taught that at the end of the day, you need to succeed on your own. You only need to look at the now fabled origin story of Facebook to see how throwing your teammates (and best friends, yikes) under the bus is totally cool so long as you make it.

you made it marky z

you made it marky z

It’s a culture that many companies are trying to stamp out, for example millenials in business are doing away with the corner office in favour of open plan workspaces. Workplace environment is valued more than ever with companies like Google and Buzzfeed providing food, gym memberships, and rec/nap rooms to their staff. Despite this however, competitiveness in the workplace still reigns. A few years ago The New York Times came out with a pretty sickening article on Amazons corporate culture (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html). It an interesting read, but basically employees are expected to work to the bone and either overcome extreme exhaustion and stress, or they are fired. Most don’t last more than a few years. It’s a use ‘people up until they drop’ kind of system, and entirely unsustainable. While not to this extreme, many companies make huge profits on employing similar systems, hidden as graduate programs.

Gender has an interesting role to play in this. I don’t like arguments that say things like in the prehistoric era ‘women gathered and so needed collaboration to tell each other where the berries were, while men hunted and needed to be quiet’ or some other kind of nonsense as to why women are better communicators. A) the human evolutionary path basically shows being able to communicate made us way better at hunting so we could eat more meat so more brain power so better communication so on so forth so men and women developed communication skills and B) conditioning is so powerful. Girls are taught to talk through their feelings, often in unhealthy ways such as gossiping (whole other issue there), whereas boys are taught to respond if not with violence than with some other kind of triumph, like beating them on the sports field or in the classroom. Women, as a marginalised group also have developed better cultures of collaboration to keep ourselves safe (pretending to be best friends with a girl you’ve never seen before to get her out of the clutches of a creepy dude) advance our standing (mentoring programmes and clothes swapping for job interviews) and provide the missing support we need to each other (sharing childcare, swapping low cost recipes, mummy facebook pages, Dignity!!!).

Men, however, due to levels of privilege and toxic masculinity don’t feel the need or the possibility of relying on each other. Because the workforce is inherently masculine in it’s set up, it functions in a very competitive way. Women and other minorities who have been historically excluded from this workforce are then indoctrinated into these ideals, however rather than being highly competitive with the men around them, they tend to compete more fiercely with each other. This is because the space that women occupy in the workplace at upper levels still remains scarce, but rather than attempting to carve out more space for ourselves, we compete with each other and bring each other down to try gain the little piece available. This of course, totally serves the system that keeps women disenfranchised with higher level careers and out of upper management.

But I don’t think the solution is not simply that women need to be more competitive with men. I think that women should value their skills of collaboration, see other women as an asset, a team member, rather than a threat. If you see a woman in a position you want, take that as a reminder that there is a need for someone like you in those roles. See every woman who succeeds as proof you can do it too. Ask women who inspire you to get a coffee and ask for advice. Try to do the same with women who aspire to your career. And don’t leave your male colleagues out too. I’m not suggesting you expend hours of emotional and mental labour trying to teach them how to communicate, but set the standard for what you expect in the teams you work in and don’t be afraid to remind them of the values of communication to business (http://smallbusiness.chron.com/value-effective-communication-workplace-16129.html).

Women gain nothing by competing with each other, in the pursuit of better, fairer workplaces, we must change practice and carve out new spaces. Most of all, we need to do it how we’ve always made our biggest leaps and bounds in history, by working together.

By Eleanor Green