Why We Sometimes Wish Susan Would Fail, and What We Can Do About It
Susan succeeds often in life. She and I have been friends for fifteen years. We are the same age and have the same job — we are both professors at the same level (though at different universities) who study human behavior.
Recently, Susan told me she is planning her next big career move. “It’s going to be a game changer for my career,” she said. My heart dropped to the pit of my stomach. She continued. I feigned encouragement. But, I felt some combination of sad, angry, and scared. Deep down, I hoped she would fail.
It’s horrifying that I did not want Susan to succeed, because she is my friend. But, because she is a work colleague, she’s also my competition.
Shortly after Susan told me her plans, my other work colleague, Tom, told me about his most recent major career achievement. My reaction was markedly different. Hearing Tom’s news felt like a weather report. It made me neither happy nor sad.
I decided to report my own ugly, deep-seeded thoughts about Susan after a recent webinar held last month by the Center for Women in Business at Rutgers Business School. The webinar solicited questions from the audience (mostly women) and one universal question emerged:
How come women are harder and more judgmental toward other women in the workplace than they are toward male counterparts?
[Related: Female Coworkers: Allies or Enemies?]
To truly understand the reason, we must consider the problems that men and women faced at the time of human brain evolution.
Across much of human history, we lived and traveled in small bands of people without agriculture and mass production of food. Because we did not mass-produce food, there was no time for specialized careers or trades - including modern medicine. For 99% of human existence, we were in constant search for food and shelter, and protecting ourselves from war, predators, and disease. Death was always around the corner.
Perhaps most critically, men and women contribute differently to the reproduction of offspring. The minimum contribution for men is the act of intercourse; the minimum for women is ten months' gestation and years of breastfeeding. For young children to survive to adulthood, additional years of dependent care are also required. Humans are born extremely helpless.
Many of the gender differences we see between men and women are the result of how the sexes needed to differentiate themselves in order to make sure these helpless humans would survive to reproduce on their own. Because women had to biologically produce and feed babies (i.e., this was not optional), men had to specialize in other things.
Mothers needed to survive long enough for their children to survive (at a time when infant mortality was fifty times what it is today). If you were an adult woman thousands of years ago, you were almost certainly a mother. While the brains of both men and women evolved to guide our behavior in ways to ensure access to the necessities of life, women’s brains evolved to also solve the problem of caring for helpless children who could die easily.
Here’s the kicker: Across human history (and still today), men controlled most of the access to food, shelter, and protection that women needed to help themselves and their children live and survive.
Here’s the bigger kicker: While only some men controlled access to the best food, shelter, and protection, nearly all women were mothers and really needed those resources.
Thus, women had to compete with other women for access to the resources that men controlled. The survival of our children depended on it.
Back to Susan.
I hope she fails because even though times have changed, the hardware in my mind still categorizes Susan as a competitor. And, in some ways she still is.
While women account for over half of the U.S. college-educated workforce, women lag far behind men in representation in leadership positions. Women hold just 10% of the top management positions in S&P 1500 companies. Although access to leadership roles is not a life-or-death situation, my brain doesn’t realize that.
Susan and I are judged on the same metric, in the same way. We are the same age and at the same point in our careers, relatively. Even though her gain is (often) not my loss, my brain still processes her success as a strike against my gaining a seat at the table — at my gaining access to the resources, too.
My brain paints this picture: If she is better than me, and life-saving resources are limited, then I could lose out. Men will choose her. And they will not choose me. She stands to get more.
The desire to compete with other women starts early, with young girls reporting significantly more upset (compared to young boys) if one of their closest friends achieves higher status than them.
Indirect female competition is as hard-wired into our brains as our desire for fat and sugar. But, just like we resist the urge to eat cookies and fries at every meal, we can also resist and transform the urge to feel bad and act out when other women succeed. When the tendency to malign, sideline, or even just secretly hope for Susan’s failure arises, we can remind ourselves that lifting other women up is the only way to get more seats at the table for all women.
More seats means that we will have more access to careers that offer the greatest opportunity to advance innovation, equity in policy, and even create better outcomes for firms. Most critically, it means that women will have greater opportunity to create personal wealth. Personal wealth means freedom.
Let us remind ourselves that, in today’s world, another woman’s gain is also ours.
Kristina Durante is the Associate Professor of Marketing and PhD Program Coordinator at Rutgers Business School.
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