The day before leaving Dunedin to travel to Copenhagen for the Women Deliver 2016 conference, I found myself in a state of confusion, with an inability to eloquently explain my opinion - and, in fact - an uncertainty on what exactly my opinion was, regarding my attitude towards academic competition. I was explaining to a male classmate that I had absolutely no problem with being second in class to him, but I would not accept a lower grade to the only other female member of the class. When he asked why this was, I fumbled with my answer. My focus wasn’t around a male versus female battle, rather, I wanted to be the woman who stood out. I wanted to be the woman who our other classmates went “wow” at. I wanted to be the superior woman. Why I wanted this sense of superiority over my one other female classmate, rather than simply wanting to do my own personal best, or be the absolute top in class - I didn’t have an answer to. Of course, I wanted to succeed to the best of my abilities and to strive to be overall number one, but my goal, first and foremost, was to beat the one other person of my gender. After a lively debate with my male classmate - during which I totally failed at convincing him of the logic behind my feelings - the topic of conversation was dropped, but it lingered in my mind during my journey to Denmark.
The issue of female on female competition arose once more over a smorrebrod lunch with my fellow delegates, on our first day in Copenhagen. We were sharing how we all had the slight concern before coming on the trip of the possibility of being the least accomplished delegate, and this expanded into a conversation about our insecurities around other women. We all had experiences where we had thought “What if she’s smarter than me?”, or “Damn, she’s prettier than me”, or “Shoot, everyone’s laughing at her jokes, I need to step it up”. During this conversation, at first I was relieved that I wasn’t the only woman who had these worries. But after more contemplation, I wished that it was just me, because this attitude of women on women competition is a serious, and widespread issue.
The Women Deliver 2016 conference started this afternoon. Yemurai Nyoni, the Founder and Advisor of Dot Youth Organisation, and 2013 Women Deliver Leader from Zimbabwe said in the opening ceremony “Strength is not defined by the weakness of others”. This one statement explains to me why I couldn’t articulate to my classmate last week just why I couldn’t stand getting a lower mark than the other female class member. I couldn’t explain my feelings because it just didn’t make logical sense for my achievements to be defined by hers. My argument - my attitude - had no logic behind it. I realized that it is a mindset I’ve fallen into in my misguided attempts to fulfill my individual expectations for success.
As girls and women, we are bred to compete against each other. We compete for opportunities. We compete for appreciation. And we compete to be noticed. In a world where being a successful woman requires self confidence, a never give in attitude, and very thick skin, it can be difficult not to see other females as an obstacle in our way to success, and a barrier in our way of feeling appreciated. In each of our individual quests to be valued as equals to men, we can fall into the habit of thinking that achieving this requires standing out among women. One can be forgiven for thinking that pushing ourselves forward as an individual woman is pushing women forward overall. This, however, is not the case. Achieving gender equality isn’t a one woman fight done by many. Rather, it’s one fight involving many women. Constantly comparing ourselves to one another doesn’t actually achieve what we want on a wide scale. Competitions only have one winner, and given there are three and half or so billion other women on the planet, our odds as individuals aren’t great when competing against each other. However, when working together, celebrating each other’s success, valuing differences, and seeing each other as comrades rather than competitors, we can be successful and appreciated.
None of us in the delegation are concerned about being the least accomplished anymore. We are proud of each other for our successes. Some of us are doctors, lawyers, local government workers, historians, musicians, dancers, artists, book lovers, adventurers, dreamers, doers, and all of us are phenomenal women. Perhaps one of the most wonderful things of today was witnessing a fist pump between Margaret Chan and Gro Harlem Brundtland during the opening ceremony of conference. This gesture of solidarity, support, encouragement, and unity was the perfect demonstration of two incredibly successful and different women acknowledging each others kick ass awesomeness, and working as a team towards a greater goal.
I will probably continue to feel insecure about my abilities in comparison to other women, and when my female classmate inevitably beats me in an assignment, I will probably have a small stab of jealousy. I won’t be able to help myself wishing I looked as good in skinny jeans as some other girls, and I will most likely find myself in many more social situations wishing I had another woman’s wit. But I am now aware of this issue, and I know I am not the only woman dealing with it. Many of us are so caught up in striving for success and appreciation that we don’t even notice the relationships we are missing out on in our attempts to attain these. In just the last few days I have spent with the nine amazing young women in my delegation, I have learned that the only thing that can make me feel inferior to them is me allowing myself to make comparisons. In order for us all to move forward as women, we must acknowledge our tendency to make comparisons, resist the urge to do so, and look at other women’s talents with admiration as opposed to jealousy. For me, it is a total change of mindset. But it’s doable, and must be done. Maya Angelou, one of my favorite poets wrote:
“I’m a woman
Phenomenal Woman has always been one of my favorite poems, but I always had read it as directly applying to myself. Now I read it as a member of a group. Phenomenal women. That’s us.
All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute