By Erin Joy, Entrepreneur, Business Coach & Consultant

Last month, I did the unthinkable. I was a guest on a competitor’s podcast. Yes, I befriended the enemy.

At least, that’s how many people perceived it. Many of my colleagues were shocked that two women “competing” for the same clients could—and would want to—join forces for the greater good.

Why? Women are supposed to be catty. We’ve all heard it. We’ve all subscribed to the notion at one point or another. But what does it really mean? Why do people use terms like “cat-fight” to describe female competition in particular? What’s the derogatory male equivalent? (It doesn’t exist.) Is the idea that women can’t play nicely together, in business or in life, true? And if so, is it a learned behavior or innate?

To answer these questions, we must consider the terminology’s origin. In an analysis of the cat-fight published by the College of Charleston, Rachel Reinke explains that the use of the term first occurred in 1854 in Utah and the Mormons, a detailed account of the Mormon lifestyle. In a section on best facilitating the practice of polygamy, the doctrine notes that homes were to be built in order to separate the different wives of a household, in order to “keep the women…as much as possible, apart, and prevent those terrible cat-fights which sometimes occur.”

In other words, the cat-fight was first used as a tool of the patriarchy to keep women divided and prevent challenges to the male-dominated status quo from occurring collectively among females.

Today, this concept continues to color our perception.

As business professor Catherine M. Dalton observes in her analysis of the “queen bee” phenomenon, an ideological extension of the cat-fight, “women throughout the ages have been ensconced in, and have even assisted in the development of, a culture that perpetuates a portrait of women as driven by jealousy, to the point of seeking the destruction of rivals, real or imagined.”

To an extent, it makes sense that women would inadvertently assist in the development of this culture. In her piece on “the myth of the catty woman”, Sheryl Sandberg notes that structural disadvantages have historically forced women to protect their fragile turf. Research shows that in male-dominated settings (like many industries), “token women” are more likely to worry about their standing in the marketplace, so they are subconsciously reluctant to advocate for, or trust, other women.

Shifting Mindset for Success: From Competition to Opportunity

The good news? It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to accept the notion of destructive competitiveness among women. In fact, many of us don’t.

How do I know? I live it. I have based my entire career around the philosophy that women are more powerful together. Just look at the growing tide of female empowerment that is rising today. Movements like “Time’s Up” wouldn’t be possible if women around the world weren’t lifting one another up.

Before I go any further, let me assure you that I am not promoting a “females first” mentality. It is not us versus them. My intention is not to build “sisterhood”; that’s too narrow-minded. I’m a big picture person. I believe in building a community of people. I value business relationships with every person, regardless of gender.

That said, there is also value in connecting with, and learning from, people overcoming similar obstacles as you, and women in business face very specific challenges. Absorbing best practices and learning from the collective experience of other female owners can be powerful for innovation, problem solving, accountability, and support.

I have tested this theory through various vehicles including a private Facebook group, a semi-annual conference, and roundtable groups, all specifically for women business owners. Each endeavor has proven time and time again that given the right context and frame of mind, women are incredibly supportive of one another—even their “competitors”. They are eager to share and learn together, because they know that success comes from tapping into the resources that make you more empowered.

How do you create the positive context necessary to manifest such empowerment? Here’s my solution:

  1. Think big picture. Remember that we now live and work in a global marketplace. Especially if any component of your business can be done online, there is more than enough business to go around in the 24/7 digital world. Spending energy worrying about your competition is an exercise in scarcity thinking and can seriously limit your success.
  2. Know who you are and what specific value you There is power in this in every aspect of life, but especially in business. Understanding your unique value proposition is key to finding peace with the fact that some will resonate with you, and some won’t. I’m often reminded that for every person who appreciates what you have to offer, there’s another who doesn’t—and that’s okay. It’s the reason capitalism exists, the reason you’re lucky enough to be in business. If you believe your work is distinct and you brand yourself well, the construct of competition does not exist.
  3. Know who they are and what specific value they When you are authentically interested in, and curious about, the value that others provide, you can empower one another. Relationship building—even with perceived competitors—is key in business, but relationships are only successful if the interest is mutual. Lift up and support your peers, and you will undoubtedly reap more than you sow.
  4. Shift your mindset from competition to opportunity. Ann Friedman’s shine theory which promotes an “I don’t shine if you don’t shine” mentality, illuminates the value in this. Surrounding yourself with the best people doesn’t make you look worse by comparison. It makes you better.
  5. Harness your energy to the hustle. Comparing yourself and your business to others is a waste of time and energy, both of which you need a lot of to succeed. Action is what produces results. So, move on and get to work.

Ultimately, successful people are empowered people, and empowered people don’t give in to the status quo. They don’t buy outdated patriarchal norms, such as cat-fight culture. Instead, they write their own narrative. They take responsibility for (and believe they are responsible for) their actions. Most importantly, they know that another person’s success—regardless of gender—is not their failure.

About Erin Joy

A strategic consultant, trusted confidant, and honest advisor, Erin Joy founded the consulting and executive coaching company, Black Dress Partners, in 2011 to help guide businesses facing a variety of challenges. Erin and her team conceived Black Dress Circle®, facilitated, member-driven roundtables exclusively for female business owners, and more recently, the Midwest Women Business Owners’ Conference.  She has helped transform a variety of organizations across industries and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in business psychology from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.