As an engineer, my coworkers are overwhelmingly male. So overwhelmingly male, in fact, that I am only one of two women in my department.
And to be honest, it’s what I wanted when I started studying Engineering.
When I was 17 years old, I bought into the “it’s better to work with men”stereotype. My head was full of misconceptions about career women: They were catty, gossipy, conniving, and shrew (except me, of course!). That’s the thing about stereotypes, isn’t it? We never feel like we’re a part of them.
Getting into an Engineering program is difficult, but staying in it is the real challenge. My introductory courses were in a classroom with over 300 students. If I wanted to get an A in the class, I had to outperform at least 80% of my classmates.
Competition becomes our way of life.
As much as we want to get along and become allies, we have bigger goals. We want to be engineers, we want to work in a renowned company, and we want to make the big bucks. Yet we know that those coveted positions are not as readily available for women.
Employers hold many unconscious biases against women in science. Men are still seen as more qualified and more apt for the sciences. And in an environment already full of men, they just seem like the perfect fit.
And that leaves us, women, fighting for what feels like one position.
As babies, we are all belligerent. Who hasn’t heard of the “terrible twos?” But as girls get older, they are often conditioned to be nice.
We have to play at being nice for so long that we hold our hostilities in and can become indirectly aggressive.
As adult women, we rarely punch or kick, but we sure can sulk!
But this isn’t another article explaining how biological differences between men and women account for difference in behavior. I’m not into biological essentialism. In fact, adult men and women both resort to indirect aggression and backstabbing.
But gender essentialism is real, and it affects the way women handle situations.
We need to rise above the stereotypes of “catty women” by following a few steps.
1. Understand Why You Feel Rivalry with Your Female Coworkers
Men have their place in society established since birth, and that privilege extends into boardrooms, courtrooms, hospitals, laboratories, and most other industries.
Think of the experienced woman in male-dominated professions. She is often known for being ruthless and thick-skinned. She is the one exception in a room full of sameness, but that position is also precarious, especially when young newcomers threaten that status.
When we meet other women who are on the same career ladder as we are, it’s all too easy to dislike them. It means we have to struggle twice as hard because of a deep-rooted belief that there can be only one woman at the top – two at the most.
Eventually, we will have to outshine our female coworkers for those few positions at the top, so we might as well start early.
The rivalry we feel is not because we’re petty by nature. It’s a survival skill we need to ensure the establishment of our future. But it isn’t helping us as a group.
2. Acknowledge Who the Real Competition Is
Our direct competitors are our male coworkers. We have similar educational background and comparable expertise.
Our male coworkers in Engineering also have the advantage of finding role models they can relate to. Women, on the other hand, only make up 24% of workforce in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).
Men aren’t naturally better at math and science, nor are they born leaders, but they have the advantage of being part of pre-existing alliances. As Natalie Angier in Woman: An Intimate Geography puts it: “The real innovation…in the evolution of patriarchy was the perfection of male alliances.”
The problem is that we don’t feel threatened by our male coworkers.
But we do feel tension when we have to work with our female colleagues.
Acknowledging that we feel threatened by other women may seem petty and quarrelsome, but it’s an important part of learning how get past it. You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken.
3. Don’t Try to Outshine One Another
I know, I know! You want to get ahead and be the woman on top, but when you purposely try to outshine your female coworkers, you are contributing to the belief that there can only be space for one of you.
We don’t have to defeat the intimidating woman or the woman who stands out in order to get ahead.
Adopt the “I don’t shine if you don’t shine “ mentality. This is how we build alliances, and if we learn anything from history, we know that alliances work to make us stronger not diminish our individual efforts.
Female leaders are known for being collaborative and team-oriented, so we should put that to the test!
If we start seeing our female coworkers as our team members striving toward the same goal, we would get to that goal a lot faster – and with quite fewer rivalry-induced headaches.
4. Don’t Trash Talk
In 1976, Jo Freeman wrote an article entitled “Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood” for Ms. Magazine where she expressed her experience with trashing within the feminist movement.
Freeman says that ”trashing involves a violation of one’s integrity, a declaration of one’s worthlessness, and an impugning of one’s motives.”
Trash talking is not competition.
It involves assassinating a person’s character and integrity. This type of psychological manipulation may give one a quick sense of satisfaction, of feeling “on top,” but it’s disingenuous and petty.
Let your work speak for itself.
You don’t have to put other women down to get ahead. Doing so is being complicit in the patriarchy, and inevitably forcing women to stay in their place.
I have only worked with women in Engineering, but I have firsthand experience with feeling alienated and stereotyped. I have been intimidated in meetings and presentations.
And I have also been the intimidator.
But the belief that there is only space for one woman at the top transcends industries.
We must remember that the boardroom is not a throne. There is space around every boardroom table for us – many of us.
We just have to barge in as a team.