One of my guilty secrets is that I watch “The Biggest Loser” while I’m working out on the treadmill, something I usually don’t talk about in my real life. Because reality shows in general are a big waste of time, right? And watching this one in particular plays into society’s intense focus on our bodies, right? Which goes against all I stand for in my work to make the world a better place for women, right?!? But give me a break, I have my reasons.
Maybe it’s because at one point in my life I was carrying around an extra 80 pounds so I can relate to the struggle with bodyweight. And maybe because the people on the show are so feisty and committed it’s motivating. Because sometimes when I watch it the thought goes through my head that if those people can lift weights like that and persevere with huge body challenges and even run a marathon then so can I. Whatever the reason, it gives me one more chance to observe human behavior – especially women’s.
The show may be inspiring to people who struggle with their weight (which would be a majority of our current population, if you believe the obesity statistics) but it’s also irritating beyond belief. More often than not I yell at the coaches, the competitors, the ridiculous challenges and crazy drama. My son and housemate have gotten used to seeing me huffing away on my treadmill, shaking my fist at the screen as I yell at yet another woman who has voted her teammate off – always because she has voted to send another woman home, instead of the man.
What is wrong with you? I scream. Don’t you know that the men on your team are your biggest threat? Their male bodies can build more muscle and drop weight faster, and don’t you want to win? What the hell is wrong with you?
It’s frustrating to see how frequently women vote each other off because of a personal conflict, when the perceived threat is based on personal competition, not physical – in spite being part of a purely physical contest — and this gets me thinking.
It would be easy to conclude that we women can be our own worst enemies, especially when it comes to teamwork. But step away from my frustration with a reality TV show that can hardly be seen to represent reality and look at some other facts.
Title IX, which guaranteed female students equal access to athletics, was passed in 1972. In just six years it resulted in a huge increase in the percentage of young women participating in sports—from one in 27 in 1972 to one in four in 1978, and by 2006 women competed in college sports at almost the same rate as men. And while that (plus winning more sports scholarships) is the main way Title IX impacted women in education, we’ve seen many other effects. Playing sports as a kid leads to stronger leadership skills, higher academic performance, increased self-esteem, increased health, even lower rates of teen pregnancy. Title IX has definitely helped make a difference for women.
In the business world, we also know that women’s ways of working together can create stronger teams. Women leaders tend to have a more inclusive style of making decisions, resulting in management moves that are more considered and well-rounded. Women’s intuition and emotional intelligence are usually far more honed than their male counterparts, leading to businesses taking more calculated risks. Companies that had more women leaders fared better in the crash of 2008 than those with all men at the top, for instance.
Studies in the business world have concluded that men prefer competition while women prefer cooperation. In the political realm, it has been found that women of the Senate from both sides of the aisle often take it upon themselves to start talking and keep talking until they figure out a solution. Psychological studies have found that the traits of flexibility and open-mindedness, more commonly found among women, lead to stronger mixed-gender teams.
Yet we also see how men are far more likely to rise in the workplace due to mentorship from another man. This is true in fields as diverse as academia, medicine, law, construction, filmmaking… the list goes on. So if women are such good team players, why aren’t we all lending each other a hand up?
An easy answer is that what fuels women to fail in their support of other women is the same thing that drives mean teenaged girls to hurt other girls – self-hate. Persistently rigid gender roles, ongoing media messages about women’s bodies, double-standards about the choices women make compared to men, can all lead to deep roots of self-hate. That answer sounds suspiciously like all the other answers that blame women for our own challenges though.
Why do women turn against each other? Why don’t they join as stronger teams? Whether it’s on a ridiculous reality show or in the classroom or the board room these are the wrong questions altogether. I prefer to ask: How can we all support each other to be stronger, more successful and powerful, and to be greater leaders? Because if we focus on those questions maybe we can practice better answers and create a stronger future for all of us. That’s how we all win.