THE BLOG
10/20/2014 01:01 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2014

Catfights and Clichés

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There has been plenty written about the rivalries among women in highly competitive jobs, whether those jobs are in the boardroom, on the tennis court, in the courtroom or on the movie screen. These situations are often characterized in the media as "catfights." It's striking to me that a term that is so patently negative and blatantly sexist is used so nonchalantly -- and so frequently -- to label women's behavior in the workplace. Why is it that talented, ambitious women competing for top jobs in their chosen profession are more often than not portrayed in this way?

Case in point is the new book The News Sorority by Sheila Weller. Weller set out to write a book about three of the most successful women in the news media: Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer and Christiane Amanpour. However, by her own admission, Weller ended up writing a book that she thought would be more interesting to readers if it incorporated numerous personal details about the three women. Those details include an abundance of anecdotes and gossipy remarks, many anonymous. Are we surprised when the early reviews of the book highlight in-fighting and petty jealousies more prominently than the stellar career accomplishments of these women? Apparently Weller was. Had the book been written about three successful men, I doubt that any competitiveness among them would have prompted headlines declaring dogfights and chicanery.

Larger-than-life egos are tolerated and even celebrated when male rivals are scaling the career ladder. Any nastiness, if reported in the media at all, is attributed to a healthy -- and required -- dose of swagger. I would love to see the word swagger used to describe assertive, decisive female executives without apology.

Women are scaling a different career ladder than men. The rungs often seem more widely spaced and countless disapproval traps occupy the gaps. There are many things to navigate on the ascent, including the sting of public criticism that tends to linger.

I realize that this is not a new observation. But when three incredibly talented women can't be recognized for their professional contributions and trailblazing without being diminished by a catfight reference, then we need to recommit to gender equality. Regardless of where women are on the career ladder, they should be empowered to progress their careers at the same rate as men. Gender balance in leadership should be the same at the entry-level and in the C-suite. Unfortunately, not many women make it all the way up that ladder. With only 26 female CEOs in the Fortune 500, it's painfully clear that we have a problem. That number represents only 5 percent, when women represent 52 percent of all management, professional and related occupations, and 47 percent of the total U.S. labor force.

Progress is slow and I worry that we are beginning to experience gender diversity fatigue. We need to fight this fatigue. We need to recommit to valuing men and women in the workplace equally. Professional experience and credentials should not be upgraded or downgraded based on gender. Adjectives should not be considered positive when describing a man's behavior and negative when describing the exact same behavior exhibited by a female.

Capable, determined women are not backstabbing arrogant divas. They are talented, confident professionals. And competition among women isn't a catfight. It's simply competition whether with a man or a woman.

Let's not buy into the clichés.