The car park at my son’s school is full when arrive, so I know the triathlon is under way. A few girls come streaking out of the pool house in wet togs – they’ve already cycled three times round a large field and swum 10 lengths and now they’re heading off for a cross-country mile. By the time I take up position at the finish line, a 12-year-old girl – let’s call her Ellie – is powering ahead when she suddenly slows down.
‘Come on’, I yell, ‘you’re nearly there.’ And then I realise, to my horror, that she’s actually jogging on the spot. She’s waiting for the girl behind her to catch up.
‘She’s going to throw it away,’ I turn, astonished, to the Head of Sport who appears beside me with his clipboard – possibly, I later understood – to stop me shouting. ’They made a pact to finish together,’ he explains gently. ‘Sometimes the girls want to do that. We don’t discourage it.’
Sure enough, Ellie and her friend cross the line holding hands, hugging and laughing. The Head of Sport pats them on the head and records the result as a draw.
And then, cresting the hill below are three bare-chested boys in their swimming trunks. Here they come, thundering into the final stretch, a couple of desperate twists of the head to check position, each face glowing with exertion and desire. My son is in the lead and I wonder what the Head of Sport would say if he stopped right now, 50 metres from the finish to wait for the other boys so they could all hold hands and cross the line together.
He streaks through with the others snapping at his heels, and all three boys collapse laughing on the grass. Minutes later they’re joking as they wander off to the changing rooms. There’s no sign of hard feelings, nothing to suggest that competition has done anything other than reinforce their camaraderie.
It’s now some years since the triathlon but the image of the two girls holding hands to cross the line together often returns to me. I shared this story with 200 women in the auto sector who gathered to listen to women who had flourished in the traditionally male-dominated fields of finance, sport and tech because it poses important questions about how we prepare girls for the adventures of adulthood.
Are we encouraging girls to disguise their talent and apologise for achievement? That competitiveness is a threat to friendship? To fear risk?
What did Ellie and her friend take from their triathlon experience – how to be a good friend or how to sublimate ambition? What did the girls learn from distorting the natural order of things? Are we encouraging girls to disguise their talent and apologise for achievement? Are we teaching them that competitiveness is a threat to friendship – even though we adults know that real relationships must be able to cope with individual success and failure? Are we teaching girls to fear risk – even though we know that the business of living demands we embrace it? After all, each time we fall in love, start a new job, become parents or run a marathon we risk winning or losing, but in the process, we discover something about ourselves.
To endorse any child’s decision to inhibit a natural desire to win or apologise for achievement is to completely misinterpret the role of competition in self-realisation. Competitiveness is fuelled by the desire to become the best that you can be, by the pleasure and thrill of testing your own potential. Each time you rise to the challenge you learn how to ‘fail better’ and develop the humility and resilience to pick yourself up and try again. Fear of failure will paralyse the child in the face of opportunity and kill their appetite for experiment and risk.
Competition is intrinsic to our human experience. We compete to stay alive, to win a mate, to provide food and shelter for ourselves and our loved ones. We compete for all sorts of resources that are essential to or will enhance our quality of life. But we also compete for pleasure – in sport, music and all leisure activities, we are both competing with others and against ourselves as we strive to improve our performance and reach our potential. Yet competition remains one of the most controversial areas in the discussion about women and work – and one of the most important reasons we wanted to write this book.
There’s plenty of research available on competitiveness and gender. You’ll read, for example, that male athletes are much more driven than female, that women shy away from jobs where compensation is performance related, and that women prefer to compete with other women. You’ll find studies that confirm men are more competitive and more comfortable with competition, but you’ll also read that women are just as likely as men to compete in high stakes “winner-takes-all” situations.
Many of these studies reach us as summary sound bites in the popular media and very often with a negative undertone. You’ll read that “competitive women” are motivated by the desire to dominate and control and described (often by female writers) as “catty / pushy / selfish / divisive / aggressive / brutal /”. In other words, ambition and competitiveness – the very attributes that fuel career progression and are so often admired in men – are considered unfeminine, unpleasant and undesirable in women. We believe these kinds of narratives perpetuate a negative attitude towards competition and completely misrepresent the competitive instinct.
During the course of our careers in finance, recruitment, arts and academia we have seen first-hand how fear of competition can be paralysing for colleagues and friends. We have managed, mentored and worked with women – and men – who underestimate their talent, who downplay their achievement and potential and therefore spend years working at a level below their capabilities. It is agonising to watch. Not only will fear of competition ultimately restrict your opportunity, it transmits the wrong signals and can seriously impact your career progression.
Embracing competition requires a shift in attitude. What the triathlon girls needed to learn is how to cultivate a “growth mindset” – which means redefining what is meant by the notion of failure. This is the kind of mental toughness that allows athletes to improve their performance. And it is this strength that propels you forwards and enables you to aim high and – crucially – to keep learning. So, the promotion you didn’t get after a gruelling application process is not failure, it’s the one that helps you to be better prepared for the next opportunity. The unpublished novel that took two years to write but will never see the light of day is not the failed novel, it’s the one that nudges you towards becoming a better writer. Each time you try for something that you don’t get, you step back and ask: How can I get better? What can I do to improve?
The triathlon schoolboys who crossed the finish line in the natural order were given the opportunity to discover their true potential, to learn how to compete with confidence and grace. Isn't this precisely what we should want for our girls?
This is an extract from a forthcoming book by Aifric Campbell and Tara Ricks, The 65% Rule and The WorkLife Sync. Aifric Campbell is a novelist, former investment banker and lecturer at Imperial College, London. Tara Ricks is the former MD of Randstad UK and one of the Global 100 Power Women in Staffing 2015