Catfighting your way to the top

News flash: Women don't always support and nurture each other in the office.

By R.t.

Published October 25, 2005 5:23PM (EDT)

In her book "I Can't Believe She Did That! Why Women Betray Other Women at Work" (St. Martin's), Nan Mooney takes on a tricky topic: girl-on-girl competition in the workplace. I asked the 35-year-old New Yorker a few questions about how women relate to each other, and how they've related to her since she published her book.

You write in your introduction about your fear that feminists will not like this book's focus. Have you received a negative response?

I've gotten a lot of responses from people who say, "We don't want to read stuff that's negative about women. Why can't you write about how supportive women are of each other?" But this is a really important aspect of feminism: that we're able to look honestly at ourselves. Women are great but they don't have to be perfect.

There was a time when women were just breaking into these professional areas, when, yes, it was important that they give the appearance of supporting each other. It was an us-against-them setup. But one of the great victories of the feminist movement is that now we form an impressive, powerful professional body and we can start looking within that body at what the dynamics are.

People have told me that they're nervous about saying this is a great book to their colleagues, because they're afraid of coming across as saying "I have a problem with you." That was true when I was trying to get the book published, too. I'm very grateful to my editor, because it was hard for young female editors to go to their female bosses and say, "Hey, this is an interesting issue for a book."

I would have thought that competition between women would have been born of the paucity of jobs. Now that the possibilities are more plentiful, isn't there an opportunity to support each other more?

There are still professions where, especially at higher levels, women are in token positions, so there is still that kind of competition for jobs.

But that's only one aspect of competition between women. The workplace is competitive in general, not just to get the jobs. Women and men compete for promotions, raises. That's not a bad thing. Healthy competition can push people out of their comfort zones.

How do women compete differently from men?

It's about the cultural conditioning women get. We're sent the message that the only way relationships are healthy is if they're conflict-free, and that's just not the case. Men don't get those messages. I think so many women have a hard time raising conflict because they think the only way we're supposed to relate to each other is to be super-generous all the time.

So you think competition is a healthy force between women in the workplace?

It doesn't need to be zero-sum competition where one wins entirely and one loses entirely. We need to find the balance between competition and collaboration.

You use examples in the book of friendships between women that backfire professionally. Do you think it's a mistake to form close relationships with colleagues?

Sometimes you make a very close friend in the workplace and that's fantastic! What we have to be careful about is instantly assuming we can share a lot of intimate information with colleagues. That's one of the ways that women bond, which is something men really don't do. It may be OK in social situations but it's riskier in professional ones. We should try to get to know our colleagues slowly before entrusting them with information.

I'm not saying it should never happen. But if you tell your work friend about how you skip out early every Friday to watch your kid's soccer game and two months later that friend gets a promotion and is your boss, that's going to be a problem.

Do you think that generational conflict between women is more intense than competition between female peers?

Both dynamics absolutely exist. Women in the workplace have a generation gap that men don't have. We joined the workforce so recently that women who came in 20 years ago really are having an entirely different work experience than women today.

By R.t.


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