The Fairest One of All: What is This (Latest) Female Competition Really About?

A patient came to me to deal with her anxiety over being phased out of her job. She couldn't tell if her worries were grounded in reality -- provoked by a younger colleague who was biting at her heels -- or imagined, based more on office politics and general paranoia about getting older.

At 48, she was one of the 'elders' at a fashion magazine where she had been an executive for ten years. For the past few months, every glance in the mirror led to a pit in her stomach. She was debating leaving her job -- to avoid being asked to leave -- or deftly moving the younger editor to a different department.

As I came to know her, I learned she was highly respected at her magazine and had little reason to believe her career was in jeopardy. Her concerns seemed fueled more by insecurity and envy than by any real threat. I gradually helped her shift her focus from competing with her colleagues to building her self-esteem and recognizing the contributions she brought to her firm. Five years later, she called me to let me know she was still at her job, and in fact, had been promoted to Editor-in-Chief.

This memory was sparked when I saw a recent episode of The Good Wife, where I watched a similar workplace dynamic unfold. The main character, Alicia Florrick, played by Julianna Margulies, is warned that a smart, attractive younger lawyer named Caitlin was after her job. "Watch out," Alicia is told, "She is a piranha," and heeding the warning, she goes on the defense. She reminds Caitlin about the firm's pecking order, saying, "Never, never, undermine your mentor." In a surprise twist, the young woman claims to be more interested in being a wife and mother, and quits precipitously, leaving Alicia wondering if her harshness was uncalled for. The audience is left wondering if Alicia, in the end, is relieved, or ashamed by her unnecessary insecurity.

The program's most interesting dynamic comes as Alicia, apologetic for scolding her young associate, offers some parting wise words, encouraging Caitlin not to choose between her career and being a mom. She says, "You are a good lawyer. You can't give this up, even for someone important to you. There's a chance you'll regret it." To which Caitlin responds, "I like the law, but I love my fiancée. Maybe it's different for my generation, but I don't have to prove anything. Or if I have to, I don't want to. I'm in love." She reminds Alicia -- and us all -- that the concerns of women her age are not the same as those of that came before.

You see, both The Editor-in-Chief and The Good Wife identify with the generation of women who struggled to break glass ceilings that are now taken for granted. While they worry about losing their place in the 'work race,' the generation that follows worries about getting into that race at all. These younger women are less focused on displacing their older colleagues than they are about becoming them, fearful that all the juggling and multi-tasking will lead to a complicated, unhappy life.

My point is, envy and jealousy are insidious emotions that can cloud clear thinking and interfere with what women really need. They often lead toward controlling or devaluing behaviors, rather than more positive, productive ones -- self promotion and acknowledgment of one's own position and accomplishments. "Enviacs," as they are sometimes called, lose perspective. They get caught in the daisy chain -- someone is always more, or less successful, more or less attractive, and so on -- which serves no purpose other than undermine confidence and lose sight of the larger picture.

The truth is, competition at the workplace and elsewhere does exist among women. Youthful colleagues can be found working hard to rise the corporate ladder. Aging women guard their hard earned positions by using their honed skills and experience to their advantage. Sure, young women get to enjoy their boundless energy and youthful appearance -- as their older colleagues once did -- but as we age, we all have to struggle to let youth go. As we do, we're all in it together.

In Mirror, Mirror the new remake of the fairytale Snow White, Julia Roberts plays the Evil Queen, driven by envy as she is no longer deemed "the fairest of them all." She, like the other older women described above, is unable to recognize her own value, and instead focuses only on destroying her competition -- her step-daughter, Snow White -- who is perceived as a threat to the Queen's narcissism.

The Evil Queen's destructive desires clearly stem from her insecurity -- the fear that her beauty will be surpassed -- not from any true danger to her stature or position. Besides, who is more beautiful than Julia Roberts, at any age? Ironically, not long ago in another film, Stepmom, Roberts played the young threat to the older Susan Sarandon! If only her character this time had the confidence to nurture, rather than compete with Snow White (whose real interest, as I see it, is in finding a mom to replace the one who she lost), the fairy tale would truly have had a happier ending.

Women competing with women has, and continues to be, a hot topic in the media. NBC's new show Smash is all about the drama created when a more experienced diva is threatened by the beautiful, back-up singer, who -- like Snow White -- seems oblivious to the threat she poses. Competition for "who is the most talented of them all?" is the focus of this TV series. While the real world of musical theater, (where the series takes place), is better known for actors who support one another, clearly envy, with all its back-biting and cattiness, makes for a more intriguing plot line.

More often than not, women would do better if they joined together to share concerns -- be it professional or personal -- rather than battle each other about them. Older women can mentor younger ones, teach them from experience how to best balance work, relationships and motherhood. Younger women have a lot to learn from their older colleagues and gain more from being supportive of them knowing that they too will be there one day.

How would you advise a younger colleague about aging in the workplace? If you are new to your job, what would you say to an older mentor?


Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

For more information, please visit my website at and continue the conversation on Twitter at DrVDiller.