Liz Ellis never lets her children win. Competitiveness, she says, is a trait her father instilled in her. This desire to compete without awkwardness or apology helped her rise through the ranks of the legal system (where she practiced as a solicitor for five years) before dominating another court as captain of the Australian netball team.
“[My dad] and I would always have these running races,” she said in a recent podcast. “I would never win, so the day I won was the day he stopped running against me. I knew I had achieved. That was a good lesson to learn.” Ellis was refreshingly unapologetic about her competitive streak from then on –utilising it to give her the edge against her more skilled opponents in the early days. “I loved netball from the moment I stepped on court,” she said. “I was good but I wasn’t great. I was more competitive than I was skillful. I’m a competitive beast.”
Now Ellis and her husband, former rugby union player Matthew Stocks – who, she said, are “massively” competitive which each other – are instilling the same will to win in their two children: Evelyn, six and two-year-old Austin. “Evelyn loves playing cards and we told her from the outset that we’d never let her win,” Ellis said. “If she wins it’s because she’s won fair and square. She has to be able to win off her own back… She’s quite the card shark now!”
Family card games aside, Ellis may well be on to something. Competitiveness is often seen as a masculine trait that undermines the sisterhood, but careers coach and spokesperson for the Careers Development Association Australia (CDAA), Rebecca Fraser, says harnessing our competitive streaks can actually ensure we all reach our full potential.
“Women who demonstrate their competitiveness in a positive way are able to demonstrate their commitment to the business along with showing their capabilities in both leadership and the technicalities of their role,” she says. “Ultimately this means opportunity to progress.” In her book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg suggests hostile competitiveness (think Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada) has been replaced by a more supportive and collaborative female approach in most workplaces.
“Absolutely focus the competitiveness in a way that demonstrates capabilities for the value of the business, not the value of self.”
Yet psychotherapist Diane Barth, author of I Know How You Feel:The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendships in Women’s Lives, says many of the women she interviewed for her book still experience the opposite. One said she believes her male colleagues are more trustworthy because they openly embrace friendly competition rather than taking it personally.“Women get all sneaky and manipulative and mean. It’s like they don’t want to admit they’re competing, so they go underground,” the interviewee said. Barth says women are traditionally considered carers and nurturers, so downplaying our strengths in this way to avoid conflict and maintain friendships is very common.
Fraser also believes that some workplaces don’t foster the right environment for women to feel confident being competitive. “In an environment that doesn’t support parity in leadership, or the benefits of having diversity at all levels, competitiveness can be seen in a negative sense,” she says. “If this is the case, a competitive woman may be seen as arrogant and pushy.”
Certainly, studies show women tend to shy away from competitive behaviour. We’re less likely to apply for jobs or promotions where we don’t tick all of the boxes while men do the opposite. In many professions, there’s also a sense of hierarchy amongst the female workforce. Many younger women also admit feeling reluctant to raise their hand for a project or role above their pay grade because there’s an assumption that skill level is equivalent to years worked.
So, how do we ditch the shame and self-deprecation around competition and feel confident wanting win? Fraser says it’s all about putting the business first rather than any ego. “Absolutely focus the competitiveness in a way that demonstrates capabilities for the value of the business, not the value of self,” Fraser advises. “Regardless of gender, you should focus your energies on how to positively use your strengths, and how to be provided the opportunities to demonstrate these by volunteering to take on additional tasks that can support both your objectives and those of the organisation.” Ellis would no doubt agree.
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