Competition’s Influence on the Executive Image

This post is part of the Executive Image series started by Daria (aka @MominManagement). I am honored to participate with her and five other amazing women on this topic. For more about the series, visit Daria’s website, MominManagement.

    You are a complete package, professionally.  Every aspect of your persona within your career is crucial to your long-term success and how you are perceived by your colleagues.  Unfortunately, there is a lot of competition involved in being a member of the workplace.  Everyone wants to be the best in their field or at the top of their game so it is imperative that you focus on always improving yourself internally, externally, and professionally. Also, always take inventory of the agendas of those working around you.

Unfortunately, there are many factors that influence the competitive agendas around you.  These factors can have a broad range but, for women in the workplace, it seems that their own worst enemy in terms of competition is other women.  It is almost as if women are taught from childhood to always be on their guard around each other and this cultivates an environment of suspicion, mistrust, and conflict.  Additionally, women are generally more judgmental of each others’ outward appearances than men are, noticing each others’ physical flaws and fashion faux pas.

There are several reasons why women do not always engage in healthy competition in the workplace:

-Females are raised to be docile and subservient:

As early as childhood, females are taught to act like “Ladies” and not to be assertive.  Unfortunately, having this kind of demeanor does not get one very far in the corporate world.  As a result, many women resort to competing with their counterparts in sneaky and underhanded ways as opposed to being confident and forthcoming. The purpose of this is to maintain their “Ladylike” facades.  This behavior is often perceived as being catty by other female colleagues and ultimately dismissed by male colleagues thereby eliminating any ounce of credibility that these women might have had professionally.

-Women place too much emphasis on physical appearance: 

    Although it might seem like the opposite is true, upon further investigation one finds that it is indeed women who are the most critical of other women in the workplace.  Generally, men will focus on judging specific body types or physical attributes whereas women will judge each other down to the brand of clothing, jewelry, and accessories that are worn.  First impressions in these areas often take precedent over the individual’s resume and skill set and set her up for long term failure.

-Lack of management positions for women: 

    It stands to reason that, due to a shortage in management positions for women, women who aspire to reach these career heights would have to engage in some unsavory practices in order to accomplish their goals.  This does not mean that this is an ideal situation but it certainly is a realistic one.  A lot of behind the scenes plotting and backstabbing takes place in order to secure top executive positions due to limited opportunities for women.


     Historically, women have bonded with one another by sharing intimate details of their personal lives with each other.  While this has fostered many a female interpersonal relationships outside the workplace, it has been detrimental to fostering healthy competition within the workplace.  This culture of confiding in other females has created opportunities for gossipping and slandering that have destroyed possibilities of advancement for many women.  These private details have been included in the vendetta arsenals of fellow female colleagues to essentially kill careers.

How can we foster good and healthy competition among women in the workplace?

Women need to be more assertive and confident in the workplace.  There is nothing masculine about going after what you want despite the fact that society often frowns upon this kind of behavior from women.  Part of being assertive means showcasing your professional abilities and not hiding behind your physical appearance.

Let’s be honest, we are not all going to have the perfect executive image but we can be perfectly qualified for the job.  Unfortunately, we do not have much control over how many top positions are available for women.   However, we do have control over how we communicate with one another and whether we use private information that has been entrusted to us to damage or to maintain someone’s professional reputation.  Some key words to remember when we are engaging in healthy competition are tolerance, equality, communication, integrity, and sisterhood.

© 2011 – 2013, Tough Cookie Mommy. All rights reserved.


  1. Fantastic post!!

    When I was in high school, I really wanted to be on the academic challenge team. The team consisted of guys, pretty much, but it didn’t really dawn on me that that was the case. On the way to one of our meets, one of the coaches said, “Well, I don’t know. I just don’t think women are as competitive as men and that’s why they don’t play this game as well.”

    The coach was a woman, and the person she was talking to, who agreed, was also a woman.

    I remember in college, too, guys would often comment about how girls who roomed together ended up not getting along. One of my friends surmised it was because women hold a grudge and just act out in passive aggressive ways rather than saying, “Hey, that ticks me off, stop it!”

    Of course, blanket statements are always dangerous, but these stories ring true with your blog.

    The problem I have always perceived for women of my generation is that we are caught between the “domestic goddess” era of our grandmothers and then all of the cultural discomfort our own mothers experienced in the 60s and 70s. Can you bake cookies while blogging and still be professional? Can you crochet on your way to a business conference?

    It’s a complicated world indeed.

    Thank you for this!

    • Margie, you personal experiences were really interesting. Amazing isn’t it at how labeling starts at such a young age and here we are as mature adults attesting to how long it prevails. Thanks, ~Dawn

    • Margie, it is amazing to me that your female coach would make such a comment to another female. I agree with you that women of our generation are stuck in a sort of limbo where they either have to be a wonderful housewife or a working woman. It’s almost as if society can only conceive that these two roles be mutually exclusive. We can either be one of the other but never be both. The result of this is that we have not received the proper credit for the stamp that we have left in the professional arena and we are criticized for not adhering more traditionally to our roles as housewives. Perhaps this is at the very root of the negative competition that exists between females in the workplace. Since we are expected to fail when we venture out into the corporate world by the status quo, we have developed defense mechanisms to ensure our advancement up the ranks. Unfortunately, other women end up being casualties in the race to the top. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and for your wonderful feedback.

  2. Good points , althought Working in an industry where I have never been in competition with other women, I have certainly encountered a couple of ‘Queen Bees’ – Baby Boomers who did it ‘the hard way’ and are making damn sure everyone else has to too – interestingly the worst of them in HR. One of them stopped me setting up a series of ‘Managing your career through maternity’ workshops for my younger colleagues.

    Another reason for not adopting healthy competition – The attitude of my (male) boss – I have been castigated for being ‘Aggressive’, ‘Greedy’ and ‘Negative’ – traits lauded in my male colleagues as ‘Forthright’, ‘Ambitious’ and ‘Realistic’ – for addressing behaviours, pursuing salary fairness and not being as ‘golly gee’ he expected me as a woman to be. Mind you, he still promoted me, but failed to address the fact that my two male direct reports are still paid more than me!

    • Grainne, I also have been criticized professionally for being too “aggressive” and “authoritative” for standing up for what was right or for remaining steadfast in my point of view. Being an educator, I experienced first-hand how stubborn and set in their ways some of my older female counterparts could be. Every step along the way, any ideas that I had with regard to new curriculum or instructional practices was met with opposition from female colleagues who would not adapt to ever evolving methods due to not wanting to deviate from practices that they had learned early on in their careers and that had already proven to be outdated and unsuccessful. I consider this to be another facet of negative competition because it does not foster collaboration or cooperation. In my profession, men don’t get paid more than women, however, they are allowed to get away with certain things like unattractive classroom environment and bulletin boards. I’m sure this is directly connected to the theory that female educators should have more attractive classrooms and displays.

  3. For the first time EVER, I have a female boss that I don’t despise.. and it’s been 3+ years. A true miracle 😉 I’ve had some disastrous ones in the past. yikes!

    • Steph, I have never really had a problem with any of my female bosses but I have had a lot of competition issues with female colleagues. It seems the more recognition that I receive at work from Administration, the more negative competition that I am faced with…

  4. I have been very fortunate to work with amazing women and men that (other than one) do not resort to these types of behaviors. I have certainly heard about them from friends that work in other companies though. The one that plays these games I simply avoid or make sure I am very guarded about what I say when I am around her. Be careful ladies, the reason I know she does this is she’s gossiped about other people to me – if she’s talking about others to me then I assume she’s talking about me to others. I think she gossips to try to make a connection with people, but really it just makes us wary.

    I have to believe that those that slander and attack another’s character are in fact shedding light on their own lack of substance and hiding their own insecurities. Although I do like to believe this, unfortunately, I also know that peoples’ impressions of you are sometimes based on only one or two exchanges. Some women that are more humble or soft spoken won’t toot their own horn and therefore, the petty remarks of others are the only thing that someone may hear. I haven’t quite found the answer to this one yet – other than to not add to the problem by making self deprecating remarks.

    The worst one for me is the woman that truly believes the things she’s saying about others. She has created a *story* to help justify her own actions to herself and to make her feel superior. The reason this lady is so dangerous is that she has convinced herself that what she’s saying is true and therefore appears pretty reasonable to others.

    This particular type of person you just need to do your best to eliminate from your life, and if that isn’t possible, to minimize your exposure to her or him. This type of person has their own self image and self worth resting on the *truth* that they are superior and right and that you are inferior and wrong. Therefore, they can’t admit to fault or another *truth* because of the blow that would have on their own self confidence.

    In general though, I think that people are good people and don’t mean to do harm to others. If you see a friend making any of these mistakes, it would help them (and our professional image) if you helped guide them to better choices. This is a tricky slope to climb, but redirecting a conversation to positive feedback – finding one thing that is good about another – talking up a person’s strengths rather than identifying their weaknesses. All of that builds a better team and a better working environment for everyone involved.

    I have seen the power of positive reinforcement, encouragement, and support on improving work environments and the professional image and demeanor of entire offices. It works.

    Great discussion of these highly controversial topics, Maria! Thank you so much!


    • Daria, I love your suggestions by turning around some of the negativity among females in the workplace in order to foster positive competition. I think our own personal contributions to these conversations make a big difference in terms of the final outcome. Even if we do not engage in vicious gossiping or slandering of other females where we work, we are just as culpable by listening to others and giving them a platform and an audience upon which to spout their venom. Unfortunately, this is not always an easy thing to do since words or comments can be misconstrued as well as indifference. I disagree with only one of your points…I’m not sure that these people are generally good and don’t mean to harm others. My professional experiences with gossip and negative competiton have demonstrated to me that this behavior is often carried out in a methodical and calculated way with a hidden agenda in mind.

  5. Great post Maria! I have to out myself. Last week, I went to an executive’s office and could tell you the color of nail polish on the admin assistant’s perfectly manicured toes. There were no other females present, and come to think of it, I didn’t pay such close attention to the males attire. Hmmm…could I have been ‘in competition’ with the admin asst?

    I’ll have to be more cognizant of my unconscious!

    I appreciate a well-groomed female in the work place. One of my goals for ’11 is to step it up in that department.

    Love the words to remember…especially sisterhood.

    • Linda, I’m ashamed to admit that I, myself am often very critical of how other females look around me in the workplace. I’m not sure if that is because I am subconsciously competing with them or if this is something that I have been taught to do by the females that have mentored me throughout my life. There is also the issue of our own personal insecurities to consider…This evaluation and criticism of other females might be latently attached to our own self perception and feelings of worth either professionally or personally. I am going to try to be more aware of when I am making these face judgments and check myself. Thank you for your insights.

  6. I’ve read similar articles to your post and similar comments. All-in-all I disagree because that has not been my experience. Yes, I have had negative interactions with women at work just as I’ve had negative interactions with men. As Grainne points out her competitive behavior was labeled negatively where a man’s competitive behavior was labeled positively and I think this article in many ways is doing the same thing. We can all find examples to fit stereotypes but until we stop perpetuating those stereotypes in the media, in articles and in blog posts I don’t thing the attitudes toward, in this case women, will change.

    Also, if we talk about there being a certain # of management jobs for women vs. just a certain # of jobs, doesn’t that suggest that there are quotas and that women shouldn’t bother to speak up and compete for all the openings, even ones supposedly just for men? Perhaps I misunderstood you on this point. If I did, please correct me.

    The culture of confiding (not gossiping) can build strong relationships. It can also create a better understanding about people’s behavior at work. Social media shows us the value of sharing personal stories to create a following and relationships. It helps to humanize a workplace that has dehumanized people for too long.

    I think many women, and many men, need to speak up clearly and non-defensively for what they want. Cherry

    • Cherry, definitely feel that women should “speak up and compete for all openings.” My professional experiences have unfortunately included a lot of the behaviors that I included in the post. The purpose of highlighting these issues was by no means to perpetuate stereotypes of women in the media. However, in order to address the issue of how women interact with other women professionally, we have to be realistic about the things that go on. Especially when it comes to the executive image, women can often fall into competing with each other in a negative way. While it is important to identify the external influences that dictate the development of a woman’s career, it is equally important to identify the internal influences. It is very easy to blame men for all of the roadblocks that are placed in front of women as they aspire to reach their professional goals, but it is imperative that we include the dynamics that other females in the workplace add to the equation. Once we address issues of gossiping and negative communication among females, we can begin to develop more of a united front in order to secure more opportunities for females in general. Thank you so much for your honest feedback and contributions.

  7. I had a long career working for high-powered men who expected their male colleagues to go to great lengths to get results. They had little experience dealing with female colleagues, like me, but held me to the same standard.

    I’ve watched a number of men and women fall by the wayside because their notion of competition sent them down a slippery slope. If we go to work looking to “beat out” someone else, we will likely adopt some of the “killer” behaviors you described.

    If instead we go to work competing with ourselves, we focus on doing our best work, exceeding our own standards, learning something new, and figuring out how to work well with others. What we end up with is a portfolio of accomplishments that will either be recognized within our organizations or will get us something better outside.

    I liked your advice about “always take inventory of the agendas of those working around you.” To that I would add that we should also check our own! Thanks for an interesting post. ~Dawn

    • Dawn, that was exactly the point that I was trying to make. It’s almost like we get sucked in to these behaviors because we convince ourselves that this is the only way that we could beat someone else out of the position. We definitely have to be more concerned with staying true to ourselves and to being the best professional that we can be despite and in spite of others who work around us. You are right, we should make sure that we have the right agenda before we worry about the agendas of others. Sometimes our own agendas are the very thing that are blemishing our executive image. Thanks so much for chiming in with some great thoughts.

  8. I must admit I have been called aggressive, bossy, and bitchy. And, yes, I wasn’t doing anything differently than male counterparts that were praised for being assertive.

    I have also been promoted and recognized as a leader within my company & industry because I do speak up, am decisive, and voice my point of view even when it’s not popular. But, they are the same people praising me in one breath and criticizing me in the next.

    I think that this is a symptom/demonstration of the growing pains of our society to adjust our culture to the increasing power women are wielding.

    Recent surveys show that more women are graduating from college than men. My generation is the last that will have baby boomers as direct supervisors. As much as we may want that to be inconsequential, it matters. That balancing beam between June Cleaver and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies is teetering. The external image is shifting, but as has been identified in these posts, and comments, it is our self image as women that needs adjusting also.

    This is not a “sexist men” driven quandary. It is our American culture as a whole. Both men and women. I know I struggle with trying to do it all and be it all. I feel self driven pressure to be an expert in the boardroom and bake homemade bread after PTA and a soccer game that I may have even volunteered to coach. I can speak to the why’s but don’t know they matter as much as the discussion that it isn’t sustainable. Our culture is changing and we, men and women, need to look at ourselves and our personal beliefs and values to see what we are doing to inhibit that change.

    We also need to recognize that change in and of itself isn’t good or bad. It just is.

    Phew, this feels perhaps a little off topic, but the string of comments spurred me to think about this, so thought I’d share. 🙂

    • Daria, it is great that you reflected so profoundly on this whole issue. I also feel some kind of internal pressure to be all things domesticated and professional. Falling short in either one of these areas causes me to feel disappointed in myself. Maybe we are doing something, unconsciously, to inhibit how women are progressing in society. That is a very interesting dynamic to investigate…

  9. hey! just letting you know I gave you the Stylish Blogger award =) love reading your posts!

  10. I think it’s interesting how some of us have experienced a lot of this in the workplace, and then there’s me and Daria, where it hasn’t been as much of an issue. I do think sometimes we are hard on women for not being supportive when we don’t do that with men. There’s an expectation that other women will support each other and when there’s a hint of competition, it’s like an act of disloyalty. Things get blown out of proportion when we don’t carry the same expectations for our male colleagues.

    I also think there’s benefit to being blissfully ignorant. Because I haven’t experienced much gender discrimination, I don’t look for it and don’t expect it. I also don’t let it impact my expectations for advancement. I’ve always assumed I had as good or better chance of promotion than anyone else. So far, that’s been true. I wonder if some of it is “you create the world you believe in”?

    Good discussion Maria!

    • I wonder Jen if perhaps the industry that you work within affects the prevalence of this competitive “Kill or be killed.” attitude? I hadn’t considered that before, but I am in a predominantly male dominated field and perhaps that’s part of why I haven’t run into this as much as others that are more female dominated?

      Hmmm, food for thought.

      • Daria, I responded to Jen with pretty much the same thought process before I even read this comment. I definitely feel that working in a predominantly female field absolutely impacts how much negative competition you experience from other females. My own profession speaks for itself in this department…

    • Jen, I’m wondering if it is a combination of being blissfully ignorant and the type of career that the woman has. Personally, I see a lot of this because I work in a school building. I have been told by a lot of my older female colleagues that, historically, there is a lot of gossip and backstabbing that goes on in a school building work environment. I’m not sure why that happens but it probably has a lot to do with the dynamics of the staff and how closely they work together with one another. I’m sure that these factors also play a large role in the fact that I have experienced so much of the negative competition that I discussed in the post. I would love to hear from the other women who also have experienced this and the details of their work environment…

  11. Thanks for a very important article! The issue of women empowerment has always been close to my heart. I have mostly worked for myself or been in workplaces (mental health) with women, so I never had a problem.
    I remember as a young girl, growing up in Denmark, being very angry about gender discrimination and deciding that I would have nothing to do with anybody – men or women – that treated women as less valuable or capable.

    • Irene, women’s issues have always been close to my heart too. It wasn’t easy for me to write this post because it is, in some ways, me being critical of myself and of other women. However, I felt that it was important for me to address some of the realistic aspects of women and negative competition in the workplace in order for us to have some real discussion about them and to begin to address them.

  12. I’ve had difficulties with other women in the workforce simply because I’m not like them. I’m more “male-like” and I don’t back down. I think they are intimidated by me, in fact, I know, often that was the case. I wasn’t into the gossip or the girlie talk or any other such nonsense. I was a go-getter and into the business end of things. I hated working with all women and I won’t ever do it again. I’d rather work with 50 men than 10 women, that’s just how I feel about it. I’m not into the snotty, nasty, bitchy attitudes. The backstabbing, the judgements. I want no part of that. I now work with men, they are my partners, and I love it.

    • Doreen, these have been my experiences too since I work in a female dominated profession. I have had to deal with all of these negative competition issues and actually continue to deal with them daily. It makes me sad that, we as women, are not more supportive of each other in the workplace.

  13. Asking questions are in fact good thing if you are not understanding anything totally, however this paragraph offers nice understanding yet.


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