Are women less competitive at work?

According to a new University of Michigan study published this month, when applying for a job or to college, women seek positions with fewer applicants than men. The researchers found that women prefer smaller competitions, whereas men seek larger competitions, which are typically associated with higher monetary rewards. Kathrin Hanek, the study's lead author states that "The gender difference in preferences may in part explain pay gaps and the underrepresentation of women in particular fields or at the helm of large organizations."

Recently I witnessed a similar phenomenon in action. I was working with a group of talented high potential female leaders in the sales organization of a global company. It was the end of an 18-month journey and the leaders were describing the transformative shifts they experienced. One woman described how she had the confidence to do something she never would have done before – she applied for a job she had no chance of getting. Or so she thought.

This woman came from a successful marketing background where she built a track record of success and a gold mine of customer insights. She knew that if she wanted to grow into more senior roles, she’d need to get traditional sales experience. Luckily a role opened up in her region. She desperately wanted to apply, but something was holding her back.

This woman knew for certain that not only would there be many strong applicants, she would be the only applicant that did not have sales experience. She began to feel doubt; questioned herself repeatedly. Why would they want me? How will I stand a chance against such touch competition? What was I thinking?

What this woman learned to do, however, was to create a different talk track in her head. She learned to reframe her inexperience in sales to a strong competitive advantage. She was the only applicant who had the insights from her previous role. She turned her fear of losing into drive and determination. She showed how much she wanted to learn and grow. She stopped viewing this as a competition and instead a way to offer the organization a different perspective. She said that had this role become available before her participation in the program, she would not have applied. But she did. And guess what? She got it!

As this woman shared her story, her pride and confidence shone through. The room exploded with applause, not just because she got the job, but because she pushed herself in an important way. It was a great reminder how our negative self-talk can be the biggest barrier to our success. We need to catch it and reframe it.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, remember this story. Don’t refrain from putting yourself out there, rather reframe how you see competition at work. It’s not about you against others, it’s about you putting your most compelling self and ideas forward.