One of the first things my boyfriend (now husband) bought me was a shirt that said: “A woman’s place is on top.” While some girls may take this the wrong way, and find this a chauvinistic, sexist, or insulting maneuver from a dude they just started dating, I found it admirable. You see, the shirt was referencing the author of the book Breaking Trail, Arlene Blum, who is a mountaineer and trailblazer in more ways than just finding her way to the tops of 14,000 footers. This book was a farewell gift from my roommate and running buddy, Katie, when I left Montana. And, this book has been an inspiration to me, especially during the first few years of my PhD (and as I started training and racing marathons)- and to this day. It really drives home to me the fulfillment, the strength, and the power that comes with choosing your own route, breaking your own trail, leading your own life.
Some big news came a few weeks ago in the world of Track and Field when Kara Goucher announced she would be joining the flock and recently signed with Oiselle. As a member of the flock, I was obviously excited, and admittedly somewhat surprised. But hearing Kara’s story, her rationale to set flight with Oiselle and leave Nike’s support of over a decade, made total and utter sense. And when Sally (Bergesen, CEO of Oiselle) dropped this one, I couldn’t stop nodding:
“We wanted to make room for powerful women on the start line of our company. After all, while we hate to admit, we’re familiar with the stereotypes…i.e., that things get messy when you have too many strong B’s at the top. And that women often tear each other down, right when we should be building each other up. One reason we find it hard to deal with the old boys’ club is that we aren’t very good at putting together the new girls’ club. I’d like to prove that theory wrong. I want to continue building the new girls’ club – where strong yet different personalities can complement rather than compete.” – Sally Bergesen, Oiselle.com
You see, whether its business, or racing, or academia, this stereotype- that women compete and tear each other down- persists. And perhaps its more than a stereotype, as hypercompetitiveness and “catty” behavior is a contended evolutionary trait. But why? I don’t have the resources to answer that question, but I do know that- anecdotally- I’ve experienced this. I’ve been a victim on numerous occasions. But what is worse: I’ve been the assailant. Oh, how I’d love to be able to say that I’ve never felt jealous of other women in similar positions, that I’ve never said something condescending about what another woman was wearing (albeit not to their face…), or performed a side-by-side comparison of another woman’s measurable accomplishments with my own (whether it were race results, papers published, or acclaim from mentors). And why? For what benefit? To make me feel better? If anything, this behavior has made me feel worse. Whatever metrics I utilized sometimes summed to me “on top”- but often, I’d find out that the other woman (or man) was better, however measurable, or stronger, or faster. And the downward spiral would progress until I felt resentment and discomfort in my own skin. And that’s ridiculous.
Fortunately, my approach in assessing myself (and others), and my accomplishments (and the accomplishments of others), has dramatically improved when I don’t pull up a side-by-side comparison. True, it’s incredibly hard to NOT pull this trick. And many aspects of life are evaluated in list-form side-by-side comparisons. Say four people are being interviewed for a single tenure-track position. Each of their strengths and weaknesses are being assessed by a committee. Or, perhaps a hundred grants are being reviewed by a committee and there’s only enough money to fund five, maybe six. This weekend, twenty elite women are toeing the line at a 5K and only one woman can win the $1,000 prize purse. Does that mean that those “losers,” the ones who won’t get that single tenure track job at this one university or win the grant or win the race are worse candidates than the others? Absolutely not. They made it there. They toed the line. Their grant was reviewed. Maybe they just missed the cut off score for funding. Maybe they came in dead last in the race. Whatever the case may be, they were there. They put themselves out there to be judged and to be assessed. By knowing humility and confidence (and when to use it), they show strength and perseverance. And it doesn’t matter what race you’re running or field you study, those there are great traits.
And lastly: It’s ok to be competitive. Competitiveness is a trait in many of us that motivates, inspiring us to do better and be better. Interestingly, comparing our own accomplishments to that of others is incredibly easy. It’s lists and side-by-side comparisons that show A is better than B. 2 is greater than 1. But guess what? Every list is always incomplete. The committee hiring for a tenure track faculty doesn’t care what your 5K PR time is. The granting agency doesn’t care how many friends you have on Facebook. Your competitors in the race this weekend give two shits if you have to prepare for upcoming job interviews*. So maybe… maybe it’s not fair to compare side-by-side. Assume your list isn’t complete; assume “their” list isn’t, either.
*unless your competitors are your friends. Then, they probably care.