Aggressive, talented opponents in intensely high-stakes jobs tend to get, well, competitive with one another. To take the passive road is both career suicide and company malpractice. Proof? TV news, the topic of my new book, The News Sorority. But when certain columnists plucked zippy items from the book about competition, in-fighting and high-stakes rivalries, they used only tidbits about squabbling women, including a snarky, obviously non-literal, mildly off-color quip Katie Couric made about Diane Sawyer when they were morning-show rivals, and an obviously hyperbolic eyewitness report of Sawyer and Barbara Walters trying to "literally wipe each other off the face of the earth." The negative items went viral, appearing in outlets from the Drudge Report to Us Weekly. And the headlines often included the word “catfight.”
What about some so-called dogfights? Back in the 1990s, Dan Rather "wanted to kill Peter [Jennings] and Tom [Brokaw]," one of his fellow CBS newsmen told me. Figuratively, of course—and Brokaw and Jennings felt that way about him; the quality of their shows benefited from the rivalry. In the '80s, when rising star Sawyer was Rather's substitute anchor, Rather would cancel family vacations at zero hour just to keep Sawyer from displaying her talent in his anchor chair. Along with competitiveness goes self-regard and, sometimes, bombast. So it's not surprising that Rather's predecessor, the revered Walter Cronkite, possessed “an ego as big as an elephant," his producer Sandy Socolow told me. Other sources for The News Sorority recalled how ABC news icons Ted Koppel and the late Jennings—despite being close friends—were “nasty and competitive with each other. Koppel would be wailing on Peter, putting him down,” said a producer. Even when the well-liked Bob Schieffer, currently host of CBS's Face The Nation, was Dan Rather's loyal #2 (so loyal, Schieffer was nicknamed "Deputy Dog"), "Bob took it upon himself to talk against Dan," said an earwitness, while Rather was mired in his misreporting of George W. Bush's National Guard service. Schieffer was thus poised to finally ascend to Rather's chair. (And briefly did.) An ABC colleague remembered how anchor and morning-show host Charlie Gibson chose the all-hands-on-deck period of 9/11 to complain that his Good Morning, America co-host Sawyer was reading more cold opens than he was. (Gibson was duly appeased and awarded all the cold opens; Sawyer didn't mind.)
And yet, none of these anecdotes about men—all reported in the book—made notice. Just the catfights.
I remember Erica Jong complaining about the catfight trope when she was in her Fear of Flying prime over 40 years ago. Not long after, Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman were propelled into a famous recent feud of letters when, on Dick Cavett's TV show, McCarthy acidly opined that "every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” Hellman promptly sued McCarthy for $2.25 million dollars. Flash forward to present-day: entertainment websites scoring hundreds of thousands of clicks with news of catfights between Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, or Martha Stewart and Gwyneth Paltrow. (Stewart’s quote, "She just needs to be quiet... If she were confident in her acting, she wouldn't be trying to be Martha Stewart,” was picked up by tabloids around the world.)
It's odd and telling when a slang concept doesn’t quickly evaporate. Will we be straight-facing "selfie" year after next? Would any but the laziest writer still use "metrosexual" or "Valley Girl"? Yet the catfight—and the broader idea that women competing or disagreeing with each is more indicative of negative character than men doing so—has stubbornly endured.
In a 2013 experiment co-conducted by psychologist Leah Sheppard, Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia, 152 participants were asked to give their opinion of three scripted workplace conflicts: male v. male; male v. female; female v. female. The participants judged the female v. female conflict as having more negative implications for the workplace than the other two. Ah, but! The three scripts were absolutely identical.
Even the way some management academics study top workplace women may betray a bias. There is the supposed Queen Bee Syndrome, by which some women at the top of male-dominated fields may designate themselves as unique "and don't want to let other women in," says Sheppard, now on the faculty of the University of Washington. “But," Sheppard notes, "No one has done a study on a King Bee Syndrome. If you had a scenario where there were mainly women in a group and there was a lone man and he was therefore able to bring something unique to the table, I would be very shocked if the man didn't show resistance to having another man hired."
Women know that our assertiveness, competitiveness, and strong decisions are viewed negatively. We know the ethical bar is higher and the approval bar is lower. We've internalized the catfight and its wider connotations, and we may overcompensate with sisterhood scrutiny.
A female executive of an international corporation whom I interviewed recently chose, strictly on the merits (and after painful deliberation) to promote a male candidate over a female candidate for an important position. It was her duty to select the best candidate, and she did. The woman who was passed over felt hurt and betrayed, and made her feelings known to the executive. The executive felt anguish at the reaction. But a male executive would likely not have been seized by guilt that he'd betrayed his gender-mates.
And what b-school academics call a "leaky pipeline” ferries masses of superiorly-trained women to what turn out to be shockingly few top placements. Since 1982, more U.S. women have earned bachelors degrees than their male counterparts. Since 1987, more U.S. women have earned masters degrees than their male counterparts. And since 2006, more U.S. women have earned PhDs than men.
But women's advances in competitive business careers don’t reflect these statistics. There's been a less than 5% rise in female Fortune 500 company CEOs from 1990 (when that number was zero) to today, and a modest 7% rise in female Fortune 500 company board members since 1995. Only 51 women helm this year’s Fortune 1000 companies—that’s 5% total. The same disparity between training and top-level advancement exists in the media. In TV, women constitute 40% of the workforce, but only 20% of U.S. TV station general managers are women.
“Women are ‘easy to get along with’— that's pre-scripted," says Alice Eagley, Ph.D., professor of psychology and member of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. "Being competitive, agentic, aggressive, self-promoting: when women do that in a definite, clear way, people get all uncomfortable. When men do it, people are okay with it."
"Do women agonize about the burdens of competing with other women, when collaboration is historically our survival mechanism? I think yes, though not everyone is self-aware enough to call it that way," says Gloria Feldt, who founded Take The Lead with the goal of helping women reach an equal share of leadership positions by 2025. "Women want to be liked, to be seen as ‘nice,’ which our mothers told us to be and is what we were rewarded for as girls."
Case study in self-promotion: Katie Couric. When she—having singlehandedly rescued the Today show in 1991 and become TV's biggest morning star—signed a record-breaking three-year contract in December 2001, she proudly let the details be known. It was not just an achievement for her but, she felt, an inspiration for other women in TV. Yet the revelation of that contract meant "it was over for her," veteran executive producer Paul Friedman (who worked for Jennings, Sawyer and Couric) told me, in pointedly sexist language. "When people knew that she was going to make as much as $65 million, she was no longer the girl next door but a rich, recently bereaved, skirt-up-to-her-crotch, hair-changing woman. It can offend you all you want for me to put it that way, but it is a fact.”
Also dinged for being "self-promoting" was Christiane Amanpour: In 2007, when she returned to CNN New York after 15 years abroad as the most hardworking, courageous, conflict-zone reporter in TV history, she was taken aback that that resume did not earn her the premiere anchor position at the network she'd been with (and helped to put on the map) for 20 years. When, in frustration, she'd remind CNN executives, "You know, I'm the most well-known foreign correspondent in the world," those factual words struck her bosses as arrogant and conceited. But if an identically credentialed man, similarly peeved at being undervalued, had uttered them, they would have elicited executives' worry.
So when you take this prejudice against forceful, non-self-effacing women and multiply it by two, adding conflict or rivalry with another woman, you have situations destined to go viral. Still, in five years of researching highly determined women in TV news, I learned how female-on-female competition does not have to be (and actually rarely is) a negative cliché.
First of all, women can refuse to subscribe to the notion. When longtime Today co-host Jane Pauley was losing her job to newcomer Deborah Norville in 1989, their supposed "catfight" was splashed over all the tabloids. ("It’s not like there wasn't any other news to cover; the Soviet Union was coming apart," Pauley wryly reminded me.) The two women knew that the construction was false. "Debbie did not push herself in," Pauley told me, resolutely. "Debbie was pushed in. It wasn't Debbie's fault." Pauley and Norville rejected the catfight construct and stayed collegial throughout NBC's disastrous replacement scenario.
It helps to use humor and collaboration. Legendary CBS producer Susan Zirinsky first worked with Sawyer when Sawyer, fresh from eight years with Nixon, had to prove herself against a highly skeptical DC press corps. Zirinsky and Sawyer pulled all-nighters over the bizarre People's Temple mass suicides and other stories. Later, when Zirinsky was trying to get a very reluctant (and often drunk) Boris Yeltsin to agree to an exclusive interview with CBS, she used Diane's attractiveness to seal the deal—"This is who is going to be interviewing you," Zirinsky said, slapping Sawyer's photo in the rising Soviet leader's reddened face, whereupon his eyes widened and he quickly consented. It was a coup for Zirinsky and Sawyer—a one-two punch of self-serving sexism for two women’s mutual professional advantage. Some years after that, Sawyer, by then at ABC, called Zirinsky, still at CBS, and cheekily asked for Yeltsin's private phone number for a piece she wanted to do. Zirinsky shot back, "F*ck, no!" Both women laughed.
When the person who is trying to keep a woman from succeeding happens to be another woman, the situation doesn't have to ring a gendered alarm. When Christiane Amanpour came to CNN Atlanta in 1983, she was obstructed by her first boss, a female producer who clearly did not like her. Amanpour has spoken of this woman; several others told me about the tension. The two women argued, and people heard them. Yet—maybe because Amanpour could be, as a friend of hers says, so un-self-consciously "in your face" when she disagreed with someone (and almost giddily amused when that brazen tactic worked)—no one called it a catfight. Amanpour later decided to fully commit to war reporting after her time in Bosnia, when her mentor, the war-zone camerawoman Margaret Moth, was gravely injured and Christiane felt morally compelled to "do Margaret's work for her." An unpleasant experience with the early female boss did not keep Amanpour from respect- and trust-filled collaborations with other women.
So, in real work life, among the most professionally aggressive women, catfights do not fit their silly, played-out description. In the meantime, we might consider joining instead of clawing.
Sheila Weller is a contributor to Vanity Fair, The New York Times Book Review, and Glamour, and the author of the New York Times bestseller Girls Like Us. Her book, The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour—and the (Ongoing, Imperfect, Complicated) Triumph of Women in TV News, is out this month.