Here’s another story that pushed me towards my current interest in disowned aggression in women.
I have spoken for several years at an annual conference for entrepreneurs here in Austin. For the last few years, there’s been a track for female entrepreneurs, and a luncheon. I went to the luncheon last year to network and just see what was going on for women in Austin. There was a panel of successful women, and a moderator who asked them questions about how they succeeded, how they work with other women, how they differ from male entrepreneurs, blah blah. It was interesting, but not ground-breaking. The moment of weird happened during the audience Q&A. A woman stood up, and asked the panel how they dealt with being collaborative, nurturing women in a competitive patriarchal business environment (I am very paraphrasing, but this was the gist). Lots of collective nodding and oohing and aahing followed. My first thought was, “huh?” Who isn’t competitive, let alone a woman with the chutzpah to start her own business? Then the fun part – only one woman on the panel of five openly said, “I’m a competitive person.” Mind: blown.
Competitiveness is a feminine trait, because it’s a human trait. It’s a human trait, because it’s a trait of all living things. We compete to survive. But somewhere along the line, it got taken out of the definition of femininity as a normal impulse. Any trait can be dangerous if taken too far – nurturing can be smothering, protectiveness can become possessiveness. I’m not saying that there isn’t lots of natural variation in competitive traits between people. But how can a room full of independent, motivated, empowered women act as if competitiveness is an exclusively masculine trait? Seriously, what is with that? If you accept the premise that competition is a natural impulse among humans, what happens when women either disown or repress their own competitive impulses? That, my friends, is the big hairy question. In high school, you get bullying. But guess what? It doesn’t stop after high school, it just becomes undiscussable.
If you are not aware of impulses that might be harmful to others, you won’t make rational decisions about how to express them. I wrote about this a bit in an article on political power. The interesting part is all three of the examples I used were former female managers of mine. One was aware of her own motivations and desires and acted directly and ethically; the other two–not so much.
Since my first career was in music, I couldn’t ignore my competitive nature. I had to audition against other singers, and the more I wanted to beat them, the better I did. This also meant that to some extent, I could watch for negative competitive behaviors in my interpersonal relationships, although I did not always succeed. There have been many instances where I have looked back at a past decision and thought, “Yikes! That was a bit much. Not cool, Michelann.” But the fact alone that I can openly say that I’m competitive makes me a bit of a weirdo. Whereas I tend to think it makes me maybe a little more trustworthy, since I can guard against letting my competitiveness unnecessarily hurt a relationship.
What do you think? Are women competitive? Is indirect competition healthier than direct competition? Should we be able to talk about things like envy and jealousy more openly?