Female Rivalry in the Workplace

Last week was International Women’s day. We looked back on the accomplishments of notable women in history and the progress that has been made towards equal opportunity between the genders, especially in the workplace. 

To this day, however, women still continue to have experiences where they must constantly prove themselves in order to obtain salaries that are comparable to their male counterparts, and must deal with being downtrodden…sometimes even by their female colleagues!

Female rivalry or “cattiness” at work isn’t a new phenomenon, and it isn’t all bad either. In fact, it is often considered to be “healthy competition”, but to what degree can this rivalry proceed before it becomes mentally unhealthy?

There are many researchers and authors exploring the power dynamics and relationships between women. They use psychological, evolutionary, and sociological theories to explain the mechanisms between women’s tense relationships with one another. These dynamics are especially apparent in the battlefield that is the workplace but are not easily understood.

Bonnie Marcus’ (2016) recent article in Forbes offers us an easier to comprehend explanation as to why women engage in fierce competition with each other. She puts it simply:

  1. We’re out to get each other. Marcus explains that through the media (read: Mean Girls, Cinderella, etc.) we consume as young girls, women have been led to believe that we are threats to each other’s success. As such we must not help each other at any cost, because we can’t be sure that someone isn't simply using us as a stepping-stone to their own success.
  2. A male-dominated work force. Executive and leadership positions are so scarcely filled by women that we feel we have to take out all the female competition to even begin to compete with our male counterparts.

Male versus Female Competition

The stereotype of men being the ones who are fierce competitors makes it difficult to believe that women would ever engage in such behaviour. Although men may in fact display more overt types of aggression, this does not make them more aggressive than females. A comprehensive literature review by Vaillancourt (2013) reveals that women commonly use “indirect aggression” or covert aggressive tactics (i.e., the silent treatment) to compete with other females. I think we can all agree on which type of aggression sounds more threatening.

Isn't it human nature to compete with each other?

When competition goes awry and turns into ostracizing, manipulation, and aggression, our mental health is put at stake. Unsurprisingly, it creates unnecessary stress that gets in the way of our happiness (Sphancer, 2014). In fact, peer victimization (a possible, but not necessary outcome of rivalry) is frequently associated with low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and loneliness (Vaillaincourt, 2013). A world without competition is not possible, but being able to recognize the consequences of competition that has gone too far will preclude mentally harmful situations.

Tips to Manage Unhealthy Competition at Work

When competition goes awry and turns into ostracizing, manipulation, and aggression, or you feel that you are being unfairly targeted as a threat by one of your female coworkers, think of these tips from Marcus (2016):

  • “Detach Emotionally”. This is easier said than done. However, riding the rollercoaster of workplace drama is emotionally exhausting and does not help you do your work.
  • Create a “Power Network”. Do not let your work go unnoticed. Build connections with influential coworkers in executive positions. Talk to them about your goals and more importantly your accomplishments at work. Keep them in the loop about what you have done for the company. If a female coworker is ever intentionally putting you down, you already have good evidence of your work performance.
  • Seek out a mentor. Having someone whom you can confide in to offer you advice, support, and advocate on your behalf will be instrumental for times where you are being rivaled. 
  • Take control of your career trajectory. Concretize your career plan. Plan it, come up with the steps to get there, and write them down-you’ll be less likely to stray from it and more likely to identify when someone is steering you in the wrong direction. 


Marcus, B. (2016, January 13). The dark side of female rivalry in the workplace and what to do about it. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/bonniemarcus/2016/01/13/the-dark-side-of-female-rivalry-in-the-workplace-and-what-to-do-about-it/2/#1a24b48d5c18

Shpancer, N. (2014, January 26). Feminine foes: New science explores female competition. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/insight-therapy/201401/feminine-foes-new-science-explores-female-competition

Vaillancourt, T. (2013). Do human females use indirect aggression as an intrasexual competition strategy? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 368(1631), 1-7. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2013.0080

Photo Credit: http://www.highercallministries.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/tug-o-war.jpg