Competition is probably the most benign form of female rivalry. When we compete with one another, we're saying, I'm willing to fight you for what I want. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, particularly when we're competing for limited resources. A woman who withdraws from consideration for a job, for example, simply because she knows other women are also up for the position would be almost pathologically unwilling to engage in the normal, healthy competition that is simply a part of life. Likewise, a woman who refused to consider dating a man merely because she knows other women find him attractive would not be coping with competition in a healthy way. Indeed, one of the great benefits of the women's movement has been its permission for us to claim our ambitious natures, freeing us to go after what we want without always worrying about whether someone else wants it, too. In some cases, competition can even be a powerful force for good, motivating us to perform better, to be more honest about what we want, and to marshal our resources on our own behalf.
The problem, according to my research, appears in two places. First, despite the efforts of the women's movement to open every type of job to women, we still tend to compete only with each other. The reality series The Apprentice makes this all too clear. Rather than presenting a group of competent professionals, male and female, all vying equally with each other, the series conveyed the idea that women's primary rivals are other women. The miniskirted apprentices were not competing on the basis of competence and knowledge alone; they were also battling each other on the basis of looks and sexual allure. A more sober presentation of workplace rivalry might not have had such high ratings, but the very popularity of the show's catfights reveals the pressure women feel to size each other up while leaving the men alone.
Second, sometimes healthy competition for what we want turns into a problematic desire to have something merely because a rival already has it. We didn't want that guy, until we saw him with our best friend. We weren't so interested in getting into an Ivy League school, until we found out that a classmate was going to Harvard. We were content to put off getting pregnant for another few years, until our best friend told us that she was due in June. Suddenly we've created a contest based less on our own authentic wishes than on rivalry with a competitor.
At this point competition shades into envy, which might be expressed as I want what you have. Now, even this feeling has its positive aspects. If envy of a pregnant girlfriend causes us to realize that our own childbearing years won't last forever, we've used that feeling to get in touch with something that truly matters to us. Although the envy may be uncomfortable, it's helped us understand ourselves better, and to take positive action on our own behalf.
Or perhaps it never occurred to us that we could become a successful stockbroker or journalist, or that we could dare to try for such a glittering prize. Then a friend achieves that type of success and we realize, Hey! If she can do it, why can't I? A little envy can be the catalyst that spurs us to aim a bit higher, try a bit harder, make our own dreams a little bit bigger.