Work is Sport

I'm continuing to read Betty Lehan Harragan's Games Mother Never Taught You. Chapter 2 that I talked about before outlined how the corporate structure has inherited the military structure. That chain of command is everything. Many women often don't get this, going above and beyond for a supervisor several levels above him. Harragan's argument is the workplace is mostly a collection of rules. Men know these rules because they've been raised with them, taught to socialize that way, and it is expected of them. Women might be conned into doing things that don't benefit their career because they don't know the rules.

Chapter 3 is how another largely male dominated activity has a strong effect on the workplace: sports. When Harragan wrote her book, Title IX was a mere five years old. And the girls that played those sports wouldn't filter into the workplace until years later. But I still think a lot of the sports analogies are important. As she discusses, women are taught to play sports differently than men. Here are some of her main points with some commentary from me.
  • "Rules are friends". Ever game has rules, and that's part of the challenge. That's part of what makes a good competition. Also, skirting as close as possible to the edge of these rules is often to the player's advantage.
  • "Players have a position." I thought this was the most crucial. Every player has a position. Your ability to get recognized by the coach is based off your ability to play your position to the best of your abilities. Running around and playing other positions doesn't help your team and so it's not going to help you in the end.
  • "Male camaraderie is fun." Boys are taught from an early age how to socialize with other boys through sports. They are not taught how to socialize with women, and women (even in sports) are taught only to work on a team with other women.
  • "You can't win 'em all." Winning an unbalanced game is no major accomplishment, but you can't lose them all either.
  • "Take defeat in stride." Losses happen. In team sports you lose games you have to move on quickly or it will hurt the team. Failure does not mean you are a failure, it means the team didn't perform well and you then have something to work on and perfect for the next game.
  • "Nobody's perfect." In male team sports it's common to point out each other's weaknesses and mock one another. Thrown in there are compliments but you can't expect you're going to get only compliments. If you screw up your teammates will point it out. But they'll also move on.
  • "Competition is the prize." Everything boys do is set up for competition. They divide into teams and compete against each other. Every skill they work on is a skill they want to test in some future competition. Honing skills without being able to compete with them is pointless.
So it's not that women aren't exposed to sports, and certainly women know work is a competition, but I know I've tried to play as many positions as possible all over the field thinking that will earn me something. Or taken defeat if not personally a little too seriously. So even decades later I think I'm still getting mileage out of this book. I'll probably post again as I stumble upon more parts that interest me.


  1. Anonymous14:17

    My husband and I were talking about this this other day. However, we were talking about the competition aspect.

    Humor me for a bit, but this is what we were thinking:

    Men are indoctrinated to believe that they have to be competitive at something. Those who are not competitive at sports, which is usually the first way of demonstrating this, have to compete in other arenas, and we both suspect that the 'psychological trauma' of not being good in sports makes men more competitive in other arenas where they can compete well. And losing to a girl is no less traumatizing than in sports.

  2. That sounds accurate. I always wonder if engineers, being generally non-jock people, but still considering themselves "normal" and not "scientists" don't tend to go above and beyond trying to prove how manly they are. Like if you were a construction worker or fireman your manliness wouldn't be in question, but if you're an engineer or an accountant you better buy a big pick up truck, watch a lot of sports, and take up a few manly hobbies.

    But you are right that indoctrination is the problem, women just aren't taught to be competitive like that.

  3. Anonymous18:39

    My husband said he felt a lot of pressure to outperform other guys in school. He made a comment like, "You can kick my ass on the basketball court, but I'm going to kick yours in life."

    Is it that they are taught to be that way or that it is just expected? When I was in high school, I was very competitive and I think it didn't sit well with people. No one taught me, but they weren't happy I was like that, either.

    Now, I just want to do a good job and be happy with my work. I view competition as a distraction from that, but a lot of people see it as a necessary skill in the workplace...which doesn't sit well with me. I guess I can't win.