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Ally or Adversary?

Relationships between female leaders are often marked by competition and contempt. It doesn't have to be this way.

2. Women invoke critiques around appearance, motherhood, ambition, marriage, and age to bring women down and make sure no one gets too far ahead.

3. Women use the threat of exclusion or excommunication. If you become too desirable or influential, you will be sent away as dangerous or ostracized before you can belong.

As Christian women, we are expected to be kind, nurturing, and collaborative, so we learn to behave in ways that hide or deny our competitive feelings. We learn to play dirty and be sneaky. Psychology researcher Tracy Vaillancourt calls this “indirect aggression.” Though it’s more covert than traditional masculine competitive behavior, it’s every bit as damaging. Why does competition—rife with envy, fear, jealousy, and contempt—mark so many of our relationships with other women in ministry?

Why We Compete

One significant reason, though it sounds cliché, is that women are judged by their physical appearance—even by other women. In Barash’s survey, 80 percent said their envy of other women was over physical appearance. This can be seen in an oft-cited 2013 study from Vaillancourt where researchers tracked women’s responses to a female assistant in a meeting. The assistant was unanimously condemned when she wore attractive, alluring clothing and was ignored or dismissed when she dressed in regular attire. The researchers found that she was judged and condemned when she was perceived as a rival in sexuality and attractiveness.

Competition is also fueled by the lack of leadership opportunities in the church where formal positions available to women are limited. I have a friend who is a smart, strategic leader. She was asked to hold a seat on the governing board of a church, and I admit my first thought was, Why her? Why not me? I knew there was only room for one woman on that board.

If a woman does have position and power in ministry, many expect that she will naturally mentor and include other women, but there are studies that show why this may not be the case. Research of women in male-dominated environments has shown that once women reach a higher level of success, they actually distance themselves from female coworkers, are less supportive of other women, and can even show a negative bias toward other women. A 2016 study done by Stefanie Johnson and David Hekman found clear evidence that women who advocate for other women and promote diversity are perceived as incompetent and ineffective and can put their current and future jobs in jeopardy. After working so hard to get to a place of influence in ministry, why would a “queen bee” risk being dethroned?

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