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Do women compete in unhealthy ways at work?

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As founder and president of a fitness training enterprise, Beth Shaw used to deal with management issues at her fitness training and education company, which is largely composed of women.

But Shaw says she soon got weary of dealing with all the competition between her female staff.

"Women complain that they're not getting what they need, but are nice to each other's face. Everything is behind the back, (and) nothing is on the up and up," says Shaw, whose company, YogaFit, is based in Redondo Beach, Calif. "Women really need to be trained to be assertive and outspoken so it's not passive-aggressive."

The feminist movement that took root in the 1960s embraced the concept of women as standing shoulder-to-shoulder in their effort to open new doors in male-dominated businesses.

But today, with the number of women in the labor force at record numbers, another question is being raised: In the workplace, are women sometimes their own worst enemies?

It's the topic of a book, I Can't Believe She Did That! Why Women Betray Other Women at Work, which was released in October and has attracted articles in international publications. The book by journalist Nan Mooney, based on interviews with more than 100 women, concludes that women often shy away from direct conflict and instead engage in unhealthy competition -- talking behind one another's backs, sabotaging success, feeling threatened by other women -- that can be detrimental to all women in the workforce.

"It's been such a taboo subject. To say women have problems with each other is seen as anti-woman, but it's not," Mooney says. "Women are afraid to raise a problem, so it goes underground, and it comes out in a twisted way. Why is it so hard to work with other women? Why are we so nasty to each other?"

Mooney's research looked only at the way women compete with each other, not at the ways that men compete. She says women aren't more competitive than men, but that they compete differently.

Other research has also probed the topic, including a survey that found that more women would rather work for a man than another woman. Thirty-two percent of women prefer a male boss, compared with 23% who would rather have a female boss, according to a 2002 Gallup Poll, the most recent year in which the question was asked. From 1982 on, men have consistently been more accepting than women of female bosses, according to Gallup polling.

Perpetuating a stereotype?

Some consultants and researchers, however, say the debate about whether women compete more passive-aggressively than men is misplaced. Employees compete differently based on their personality, not on their gender, they say, and debating the issue perpetuates a negative and untrue stereotype.

"While there is a negative, stereotypical view that women compete with each other in the workplace, the reality is that each woman or man in the workplace is unique in terms of how he or she competes with others," says Brendan Burnett-Stohner, a vice chairwoman at executive search firm Christian & Timbers.

Research from Catalyst, a New York-based research and advisory group that focuses largely on women, shows that senior female executives consistently point to gender-based stereotyping as a major barrier to their advancement. Men consider women to be less adept at problem solving, according to the October report.

Research also has found that female leaders have a different leadership style that is often more effective than a man's in some areas. Female leaders scored higher than male leaders in persuasive motivation, assertiveness, willingness to risk, empathy, flexibility and sociability, according to research from Caliper, a Princeton, N.J.-based consulting firm.

Female leaders also have an inclusive, team-building leadership style of problem solving and decision-making, according to the study. The study included interviews with 60 female leaders from some of the top companies in the United Kingdom and the USA, including Accenture, Bank of America, IBM, Molson Coors and Morgan Stanley.

But the issue of women's support for one another -- or lack of it -- in the workplace is a critical issue, especially with more women moving into the labor force and into leadership roles.

More women today are business owners: There were 6.5 million female-owned businesses in 2002, up 20% from 1997, according to the U.S. Census. Their revenue totaled $951billion, up 16% from 1997. More women are working. In 1970, about 43% of women age 16 and older were in the labor force. In 2004, women's labor force participation rate was about 59%, according to the Department of Labor. They hold about half the management, professional and related positions. About 68million women were working or looking for work in 2004, according to the Department of Labor.

Why women compete

There are several theories given for workplace friction among women:

*Few top spots for women. Many industries and professions are still largely dominated by men (for example, 14% of architects and engineers were women in 2004, according to the Labor Department, and 29% of doctors and surgeons were women).

While women hold more than half of all management and professional positions, they make up less than 2% of Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 CEOs, according to Catalyst.

Ellen Kirk of Sunnyvale, Calif., is marketing vice president at Tropos Networks, a provider of wireless broadband. But she says she used to work in investment banking, where she says the competition among women was fierce.

"It was not what I'd call healthy. It was a lot of sniping," she says. "It took the form of backstabbing. They were publicly supportive, but they were insidiously, privately not supportive. It's behind the scenes. It's nasty things said behind closed doors."

*The "nice" syndrome. From an early age, girls are generally taught to get along and encouraged to be nice to others, while boys are often encouraged to compete openly and vigorously.

In the workforce, that manifests itself as women who feel uncomfortable in direct competition with others -- and are more likely to develop subversive tactics, author Mooney says.

"The message women get is that the only healthy relationship is to have a positive relationship and be nice. Then we get into the workplace, and it's competitive," Mooney says.

"Women tend to compete but act like they're not competing. So we get a reputation for backstabbing."

And being too nice might be a detriment to advancement. Women give more help to co-workers than men do but get less credit for it, according to a research report by assistant management professor Frank Flynn at Columbia University's Graduate School of Business. The help women give to co-workers on the job tends to be significantly underappreciated, he says.

*Different communication styles. Women tend to form interpersonal relationships by sharing intimate details or experiences about their lives. But this can come back to haunt them if a female confidante is then promoted or becomes their boss. That can lead to bitterness, jealousy and lack of trust, Mooney says.

Women need to be assertive

Some women say they have experienced the competition first hand. Kimberly Charles says she has three sisters and knows the value of good, supportive female relationships.

The problem, she says, is that relationships can also sour. When she worked in the wine importing industry, an early boss was a mentor who gave her high praise and encouragement. But Charles says as she became more established, her mentor became her competitor.

"I found myself uninvited from meetings, social occasions, memos gone unanswered and generally a slow ebbing of decision-making taken away since I was no longer a protegee, but now a competitor in her eyes," Charles, 42, says in an e-mail.

In the end, Charles says she determined that her boss had insecurities that ultimately prevented her from promoting success in her staff. Today, Charles owns her own San Francisco-based marketing and public relations business specializing in the wine industry, adding, "I've had a number of experiences in the workplace, working with women, which interestingly have led me to start my own business in order to get free from the perplexing, often duplicitous environment I've experienced."

But other businesswomen say focusing solely on women's competition styles is misled.

Lois Wyse, co-founder and now chair of Cleveland-based Wyse Advertising, is the author of more than 60 books including poetry, fiction, non-fiction and children's books. As a pioneer who paved the way for other working women, she doesn't believe that women compete differently than men.

But she does believe women today are more competitive with each other than they were in the 1960s and '70s, when the business world was dominated by men.

"The women in business now aren't aware of the fact that women used to bring in coffee and not reports," Wyse says. "Because of that, they're more competitive instead of working together."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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