Study: Women Are Held Back By Competitive Work Environments


These days, working environments will always encourage healthy competition between workers. One would argue, there’s nothing wrong with this as it gives us more incentive to reach our career goals. However, new research has revealed that this isn’t always favoured by women in the workplace – at least, not when it comes to competing against same-sex colleagues.

According to new research from the UCL School of Management, workplaces that encourage competitivity amongst their employees might be holding women back in their careers.

The research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, looked at the findings of four studies with almost 800 participants and revealed that while men might encourage a bit of healthy competition between each other, women go the opposite way.

Management expert Sun Young Lee carried out a series of internet and lab-based experiments into how the sexes handle competition.

For example, the volunteers were asked to imagine they were competing against someone for promotion and then asked how they felt afterwards. They were also placed in pairs and pitted against each other in typing tests in which the winner would be given a bonus. The women found the tasks much more upsetting when they were vying against other women. Lee believes this is because women are typically encouraged to treat one another in a positive manner – one that aligns with the idea of sisterhood – rather than a competitor, whereas men have no issue with this as they are encouraged in this direction from an early age.

The findings suggest that women who are encouraged to compete against each other become stressed and can struggle to accept their female colleagues behaving in a cut-throat manner, and hence they felt their career progression would be restricted as a result.

“As a woman who has worked across the world, I’ve long observed that women take competition with other women much more personally than men take competition with other men,” explained Dr. Lee. She went on to suggest that companies should take this into consideration when settling on their approach to team hierarchies: “Bosses need to be aware that competitive career structures that are sufficient to men may be detrimental to women.”

“At the same time, women should be aware that taking competition too seriously could be holding them back from leadership positions.”

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