Why Women Are Competitive

female-competition

The idea of female competition is almost as old as history itself. The image of the competitive, spiteful woman appears in sacred texts and classical myths, among others. Media and popular culture exploit the “catty women” stereotype and men and women alike confirm its existence.

Are women naturally more competitive and with each other? What causes women to compete? Leora Tanenbaum, in the book Catfight, traces the roots of female competition to three major factors: restrictive and contradictory gender roles, economic and ethnic differences, and desire for inclusion.

1. Restrictive and contradictory gender roles

Both modern and traditional female roles place limiting ideas on what it means to be a woman. These ideas can even be contradictory. For example, it’s important for a woman to be beautiful and stylish. Yet women are made out to be superficial if they pay too much attention to their appearance, or worse, not taken seriously. Another confusing expectation comes with their relationship to the opposite gender. Women are told it’s necessary to find a good man to marry, but also told they shouldn’t rely on men and don’t need one to be complete.

Women feel constrained and confused by these roles yet feel obligated to fulfill them — all of them. Thus a competitive environment is created over who is the most pretty and fashionable, or who is the most successful with men or in their career.

Women’s competitive natures are more personal and underhanded because they are supposed to be the more gentle, sensitive, and people-oriented sex. Given this, girls and women are encouraged to develop themselves in relation to others. So when they do become competitive, their competitions are less direct and upfront than those between men.

2. Economic and cultural/ethnic differences

Differences in class and income, and culture and ethnicity can cause mutual distrust. A white American woman whose is well-off can afford luxuries that a working-class immigrant from South Asia can’t. The two may socialize with different kinds of people, live in different neighborhoods, shop at different stores. They may not feel they have much in common and thus are less likely to work together and support each other.

Women of similar incomes and classes can also become competitive. They will compete over who dresses the best or who has the most intelligent children and the best partner. They can adopt a “Keeping up with the Joneses” mindset that has them seeing each other as rivals instead of allies.

3. Desire for inclusion

People desire to be accepted into their peer groups. In order to form a clear, definite group, members within accentuate their similarities and highlight differences of those outside of their group. This can cause friction between and within groups. Inside the group, women may try to become the “Queen Bee”, go-to woman of her circle and knowingly or unknowingly sabotage other women. She may exclude others because she realizes there is power in exclusion: the one who excludes is safe in the group. Between groups, members may get into disagreements over their differences, perceived or actual. The result of this need to be accepted is conflict and mistrust all around.

What do you think are some causes of female competition? Do you have any experiences with women and competition?

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35 thoughts on “Why Women Are Competitive

  1. I don’t know what are some causes of female competition, but I’ve have my fair share of it in my life, and I hate it. I’m at the point where I laugh at it because it’s so stupid.

  2. Eliss,

    “I’ve have my fair share of it in my life, and I hate it. I’m at the point where I laugh at it because it’s so stupid.”

    I wish I could laugh but I think it’s somewhat sad. The women that have been very negative or competitive with me in the past always had issues with insecurity and wanting to be liked (by either men, women, or both).

  3. I was just having this conversation with a younger friend of mine who is rather attractive, and she talked about how it was hurtful to be at odds with fellow women. I really heard that it was hard on her. I get clearly now that we all get some gift that others might want and that ultimately we need to celebrate our gifts everyday and that way we can be gracious with others.

  4. Sherry,

    “I get clearly now that we all get some gift that others might want and that ultimately we need to celebrate our gifts everyday and that way we can be gracious with others.”

    Excellent advice. Words of wisdom.

    Of course it can be difficult to celebrate the gifts you have if know one else ever does. But there is power in seeing the glass as half-full instead of half-empty.

  5. I think men are quite competitive with each other, too, but (in my opinion), women tend to be more passive-aggressive. That’s why it seems that there are as many great male friendships as there are animosities. But no female friendship.

    (It’s something I feel strongly about, female friendship I mean, and I hate the fact it’s somewhat discouraged if it’s not based on stuff that can’t pass Bechdel test).

    But I guess reasons listed here explain female competitiveness quite well. It’s not just jealousy; all people can be jealous. It’s the way women are made to see each other as competition, rather than friends and allies. And it’s not like women have all the power in the world so they don’t need allies. But instead of working together and helping each other, they are encouraged to be competitive even if it’s against their best interests.

    How to deal with it? It’s quite simple, actually. Just refuse to play the game. Don’t act the way you were encouraged to act. Many women won’t follow, but there are some who would. And when you find them, stick to them, because those are your real friends.

  6. I have been told that men view competition as something to strive for, and to make things interesting. Therefore losing has less of a sting. If that is true, that could make the difference. I definitely feel like competition for women is much more personal and defining, so women have way more energy on it. Maybe that is another great tool in our bag of tricks, making it less personal. This has definitely been helpful for me with my singing. I have learned that everyone will NOT like my voice, and that I need to focus on the joy I get from singing versus any opportunity I am offered.

  7. Ok I’m a tipsy right now and hubby is calling for me to come back to bed with him so I’ll make this quick, I think that women are the worst.

    Like when my plump and not so attractive friend got married, one of the ladies in the break room said “Jag undrar vilken desperat man skulle gifta sig med den kossan” translated “I wonder what desperate man would marry that cow”, out of nowhere and where she could hear it! I mean she’s just jealous because she haven’t had a date ever since I known her and is almost 40.

    Eish and double eish. My best friends are women but women can be so cruel to each other, best thing is to remove all the women who tries to compete with you from your life.

    I know one girl who always had to compete with me just because she’s black. It did not help that she married an uneducated Gambian man and have just a high school education herself. She likes to pull out the “I have a white husband card”, whenever she sees me in a news dress or with a new expensive purse, like the skin color of hubby has affected my living standard. I’d never marry and a guy without a university degree black or white.. I got my own education and paycheck and if I wanted could live a middle class life on my own.

    If she wasn’t a “friend of a friend” then I would not see her anymore..

  8. Mira,

    “I think men are quite competitive with each other, too, but (in my opinion), women tend to be more passive-aggressive. That’s why it seems that there are as many great male friendships as there are animosities. But no female friendship.”

    ITA.

    Females are more underhanded with their competition (because they are supposed to be nurturing and empathic, while men are the cold warriors). Men are able to openly compete with each other.

    And I agree with the rest of your comment. I cherish my female friendships, even though I have had problems with some women in the past. It seems like some women conclude that “All women are catty and mean” (except for them of course!) But I don’t think that’s fair to women like me and others who aren’t that way.

  9. Sherry,

    “I have been told that men view competition as something to strive for, and to make things interesting. Therefore losing has less of a sting.”

    True. Men are socialized to be competitive. Sports, video games, etc. all make competition between men the norm. It’s not seen as a bad thing; in fact it’s seen as their essential nature. So it’s not taken personally.

    “I definitely feel like competition for women is much more personal and defining, so women have way more energy on it.”

    Well, competition is more personal. There is more at stake (at least in women’s minds). But then things are always more personal when you [feel like you] have less power than others.

  10. Nkosazana,

    “Ok I’m a tipsy right now and hubby is calling for me to come back to bed with him so I’ll make this quick”

    Lol. It’s okay. You can come back when you’re ready. We’ll be here all night. ;)

    Your examples of female competition work well with the post. The first one is an example of the competition that results from the “you need to find a man and fast” idea and the second shows economic (and ethnic) competition.

    “My best friends are women but women can be so cruel to each other, best thing is to remove all the women who tries to compete with you from your life.”

    This could work. But in the event you can’t remove them from your life (because they are a relative, coworker, etc), like Mira suggested, just don’t play the game. A person can still be competitive with you but eventually they will get tired if they see you’re not bothered and have no interest in besting them.

  11. Good post. Besides what you all have mentioned, I think women are socialized to have low self-esteem/look down on themselves, and women who don’t are seen as uppity or stuck-up. So some competitiveness is an attempt to “put her back in her place”.

    IME, women who say “all women (except me) are drama” tend to be the biggest backstabbers and drama starters. I have wonderful female friends (and I don’t think men make better friends than women or vice versa), but one thing I cannot tolerate is hanging around a woman who directs all of her actions/words towards the aim of attracting male attention. I’ve hung out with girls before who wanted to use me to get closer to guys they liked, and it wasn’t fun.

  12. Jasmin,

    “I think women are socialized to have low self-esteem/look down on themselves, and women who don’t are seen as uppity or stuck-up.”

    Especially a certain group of women… not saying any names. :)

    ‘So some competitiveness is an attempt to “put her back in her place”.’

    Very true. Some women think “Who does she think she is?” and try to take down the women who they perceive as uppity. I’ve seen this situation a few times.

  13. ^^^Lol, I think that’s an apt description of some of the commenters on blogs you and I are familiar with. ;-)

  14. Jasmin,

    Seriously. I’m thinking of doing a post on it — the Martyr Syndrome. It’s a huge problem!

  15. Please do. I am not sure what are exact symptoms, but my mother might have some form of it (though not directed to men and dating). It’s exhausting and the worst thing is, you are unable to help those people even if you want.

  16. Mira,

    The post would just be for this special group of women. Which I don’t think your mother is considered part of. :)

  17. I think the question should be “why women are competitive the way they are”. Competition itself is everywhere. I do agree with Jasmin on the particularly female forms of competition, though – with men it’s more like they keep trying to upstage each other, whereas women just put each other down. There’s a whole history of oppression behind that difference – an oppressed group will typically try to pass it on and find someone else to oppress in turn, like the fat girl at the gym, the one with braces or funny clothes, the one who can’t afford a boob job… The list goes on.

    I run a business, which means that competition in my life goes on many level and it is real, something to take seriously. Every time I get into a competitive situation, I think very carefully of the way I approach it. Do I try to shoot down my so-called opponents or just upstage them? I prefer the latter route, which is very energy-intensive and you really have to take pains to make it work, but it’s infinitely better than the cop-out of finding faults within others even at the times when it doesn’t work.

  18. Hi Neeta, welcome.

    “I think the question should be “why women are competitive the way they are”.

    It was originally something like that, but I try to stay away from long and ambiguous titles whenever possible. They look ugly. :)

    I agree that some women put each other down, but they also try to upstage each other. They try to outdo each other in terms of being considered the prettiest, smartest, stylish, etc.

    “Every time I get into a competitive situation, I think very carefully of the way I approach it. Do I try to shoot down my so-called opponents or just upstage them? I prefer the latter route”

    That’s a good strategy.

    What I do is compete with myself. If I can help it, I try not to know what/how other people are doing, but instead work on being the best I can be.

  19. Alee,

    Seriously. I’m thinking of doing a post on it — the Martyr Syndrome. It’s a huge problem!

    LOL, get out of my head! On my Facebook, under dislikes, it says (no lie), “Martyrs–but not the religious kind”.

  20. I can count on one hand how many true friends. I am a humble person for the most part . I’m the friend that gives advice, not just what you want to hear. I try not to be too negative and try to make my friends feel optimistic with what ever their going through.I have family that are part of my friends group, but I feel when it’s time to defer away from them you have to take a different approach.

    One thing I will not accept is rudeness, especially if your not pregnant as well as belittling, being two-faced,flakiness( all the time), jealousy, and trying to compete with me. All of those traits that I listed are signs of having low self esteem. I will try to talk and be a friend to that person, but if they are not helping themselves and It drains the energy out of me trying to always preach the same sermon, than I’m done. If it is family, I just wont make myself available to them all the time.

    It’s best to surround yourself with people who love you and support you in everything that you do. A true friend is never jealous or tries to compete with you because they should be busy being happy for you.They know that good things will come to them in time or have the satisfaction of being happy with who they are. If your not happy with yourself, then how can you be a friend to someone else. No wants to be in bad company, when they can be happy by themselves.

    Jealousy comes in different forms and you got to be careful. For example, I know a woman who will always hang with women who are thicker than she is. The tactic is when she goes out ,she stands out and her friend doesn’t. She uses this to her advantage so she can get more attention from men. One day she put down my friend when looking at a photo of them together.When her friend lost a little bit of weight , she herself began to work out harder so she can still stay ” The more attractive friend”. Didn’t compliment the friend on weight loss but tried very hard to compete with her. My friend just now figured out how her friend operated which is underhandedly after all these years. So watch out for the red flags and leave when you find them out.Your well being will thank you.

  21. Hi Deshilia,

    “One thing I will not accept is rudeness..as well as belittling, being two-faced, flakiness (all the time), jealousy, and trying to compete with me.”

    Same. I had no idea other people despised flakiness as much as I do.

    “I know a woman who will always hang with women who are thicker than she is. The tactic is when she goes out ,she stands out and her friend doesn’t. She uses this to her advantage so she can get more attention from men.”

    Wow, the “overweight/nerdy/otherwise unattractive friend contrast” tactic. Women can be so cruel in the underhanded ways they compete.

  22. I am a woman who, outwardly, has it all. I am attractive, intelligent, creative, well dressed, successful. Men pay me attention. I have worked hard to get to this place, in every way. Yet I am finding it is the most lonely time of my life. At work my success is sabotaged. Friends have dropped me for unknown reasons. (vanity was cited as the reason but I am no more vain than the woman accusing me of it). My female boss who is now gone bullied me for a year. Men treat me as either a thing to be played with sexually or flirtatiously but not taken seriously. The ones who seem genuinely interested don’t go all out to get me. (If you know what I mean) The result is that, though I outwardly have it all, I have lost most of my self confidence, am scared to form new relationships with either gender and have trouble asserting myself due to the fear of being seen as too….I don’t know….too SOMETHING…..I am working at breaking past this new barrier by joining Toastmasters, and for the first time in about three years I had a little success as far as acceptance from others is concerned, the other night. People liked my little speech and I don’t think I was judged negatively in any way.. Woohoo..

  23. Bubbles (cute name), glad to hear that you’re doing better. Competition can weigh down on a woman, if it’s too much and their is no positive energy flowing in.

  24. I would be inclined to look at it from the reverse, rather then women being so competitive because of these factors, i would say that these factors exist because women are so competitive. If women had the level of respect for each other, and granted other women the level of freedom men grant other men, then there would be a lot less inequality.

    Half of the contradictory gender roles have been caused by women, its women who spot details like weather a womans shades of make-up match her clothing or weather the bags and shoes match. Its also women who are more aware of shades of colours and subtile changes in fashion. Ive found dressing masculine is a good way to tell these types of women to forget the bitchy looks, as im not interested in playing any of the girls games. For me, i dont even have a bag, no make up, and only wear shoes if i have to, i dont care what you think of me, no do i seek to attract men.

    When young i always dressed masculine with short hair, and in truth was happy that way. But the problem was that i got fed up as being read as lesbian, so i decided to grow my hair and wear tolerable womens clothes , which for me went no further then womens jeans and t shirts. In the end i passed as streight and as female (ha ha), and the bigoted looks from the occassional idiot and the big question (are you a man or a woman?) from the occassional kid was replaced on mass by unwanted attention from men, and more attention from (streight) women.

    As young and stupid as i was, i mistaked the extra attention from women for attraction. So for a while i walked around feeling like i was in drag, the longer my hair grew the more the average woman noticed me. In the process of all this i lost one very good lesbian friend, and others i knew at the time asked me if i was turning streight. I had just come up with the idea in my head that if i did not look lesbian my life would be better, which i found to be very untrue far to late. So as time passed, the level of attention from streight women increased, as i went through college and uni i found i was getting comments i was not used to. Like asking if i eat because i was like a beam pole, preocupation with my hair colour, refusing to except i was gay because i looked like the type of woman a man would want, told i looked like an underdeveloped woman. In the end i realised i had become part of the streight world, was viewed by women as competition, i achieved my goal but not in the way i wanted.

    That was all 10 years ago now, these days i have the balls to be as masculine as i want to be(and to be fair society has changed a lot in that time), ive nothing to hide anymore, and these days many lesbians dont dress masculine. Now i have short hair again, its like stepping into another universe, suddenly i look more masculine again and i can look in the mirror without wanting to hit the person i see. My clothes suit me better too. And suddenly women are responding to me very differently, they appear more smug around me, and i get the sense they think there better then me, simply because they not see me as someone a man would be less interested in and also see me as someone less interested in there boyfriend. If im honest now i dont know if im a lesbian after all, i just dont want to be a woman. I want to remove myself from all things feminine break down any social construct of woman with in me, let it all go, allow my true self to appear and then see whats what.

    Men are competitive too but in different ways. At the gym i notice how really out of shape men stand in front of the mirror as if there proud. And i see the most attractive women with looks of terror on there faces if they catch a glimpse in the mirror. And im gonna present a very radical view as to why! I think that women are the ones who tear each other to this state! In fact i dont think i know this to be the case, so much so i could swear it. Femininity is a trap, something other then human nature, masculinity allows you to expand and find yourself. I still do not know weather i was born the wrong sex or weather all women feel as i do but just do not realise it. Radical feminists thought femininity was bad for women, maybe they were right about this. Im inclined to thing the way men are is natural for all, the human state, where as women are removed from the human state and made feminine. The more feminine a woman gets the more she looses herself.

    Anyone who doubts me i challenge you to try it, become masculine for 6 months. At first you will be scared, because there will be a massive difference in how your treated. But after that comes increased motivation, looking forward to the next day, waking up in a good mood, less apathy, more optimism, worrie less and heres a paradox you will want to smile more because your happy rather then doing it because you feel you should. When i was 18 i passed as a boy as i was so extream in my attire of shaven head and tracksuit, i almost got a kicking for smiling at a boy who thought i was a fag, i didnt know i was doing it. Look around a lot of women look unhappy, in the following years when i tryed femming up i had people asking me if i was ok all the time. This is what i have experienced, and i have taken no male hormones. How much time do you spend thinking about your hair, wondering what others will think of it etc, all that replaced by a cut that you can wash and go, and a change in thinking. No longer applying make up, no hand bag, no longer comparing your self to women. Some women may feel ugly at first when they do this, but in the end its better then feeling stupid.

    If women did not want to compete they would not do femininity in the way they do, men would not be able to oppress women without force. The reason being is because if men set a mark for women, every woman does it because she knows there are other women out there who will do it too, she wants to do it better. In the modern age of equality women could make a radical change to the world tommorrow. The second they dont feel bad about there self when another woman has something she thinks is closer to what a man wants then what she herself has, when she says im happy in me and i am rather then i have to become, then the games up. Women will win, they will win because there mind and emotions will be free. A lot of the inequality will disapear with out much challenge as most of these social constructs are generations old, they are not human nature, but are still being held on to.

    Every woman should become a person who does not need the approval of others, one who can stand alone if needed. Many evils in this world are done by people who are afraid of exclusion, so if a girl at work on is being bullied and excluded go be her friend, just dont feel rejected when suddenly she is friends with everyone again and your the one excluded (ha ha).

  25. lindsey,

    I added a few paragraph breaks to your comment since it was long and unformatted; apologies if they’re in the wrong spots.

    I will reply to your comment when I have more time — lots to reply to there!

    ETA: Never mind, I’ll reply now:

    I think you’re looking at it upside down. Why does anyone compete or want to win? Because winning has value. Why do women compete around looking good; why does looking good have so much value? Because society and longheld tradition (i.e. those created by men) made things that way.

    Yes, at this point, competition is self-creating — no one has to tell women directly that looking good is important and they should strive to look their best and better than other women. Women compete amongst each other because they know that being deemed a beautiful woman grants a woman with value and power in society. That does not mean, however, that women were the cause of strict gender roles, only that they help to uphold them.

    I think women would breathe a huge sigh of relief, really, if they didn’t have to dress up every day or worry about being judged by women and men alike on their looks. However, of course it is never that simple. To break such strongly held ideas about femininity would be a long and difficult journey and would require the cooperation and concerted effort of the vast majority of women.

    As for trying to be traditionally masculine for a few months, I don’t think I could do it. Besides it being the “correct” thing for a woman, I actually prefer dresses to pants, long hair to short hair, etc.

  26. I am not masculine (I’m too curvy and my hair is too long for that), but I don’t dress feminine and it’s pretty clear I’m not into “looking beautiful”. The reactions I get are interesting. Sometimes, women do approach me and ask me why I don’t wear makeup or lose weight or why don’t I wear more attractive clothes. They actually seem confused about why somebody would do that to herself.

    But overly, I’ve had positive experiences. I wasn’t considered stupid and I look like such a nerd that when i start talking about nerdy stuff, science etc. people (men and women) actually listen. While conventionally beautiful, but equally smart women often have a problem to be taken seriously. As if you can’t be competent and smart if you wear a feminine dress and makeup.

    Don’t you think it’s unfair?

  27. Alee, thanks for your reply. I think im just gonna continue living as i do, and leave all the other women to continue collecting there points for dressing up. If i was to walk around like that, i would hate the people who liked me, i have done that in the past. When i had long hair i would not even let my partners touch it, and felt angry when it was complemented. Now its short i dont feel like that.

    Mira,

    ive got to be honest about what i think here. I think its maybe because dressing like that is not seen as something a competent and smart person would do. A competent and smart person must know better. They would only do it if they really had to. And as not every woman dresses feminine it shows its possible to not do it and get by. Unless of course the person just likes those types of clothes and just wears the clothes. But if someone spends all there time on there looks they have not much time to develop other aspects of there self.

  28. “I think im just gonna continue living as i do, and leave all the other women to continue collecting there points for dressing up.”

    Lol. Some dress up to impress themselves you know. :)

    Also, I dress traditionally feminine most days and I like to consider myself somewhat competent (albeit clumsy…awfully clumsy).

    I do think many of those who focus more on scholarly pursuits aren’t as inclined to be into fashion — after all, there are only so many hours in a day and putting together a killer outfit takes time! Lol. But there are those who don’t follow this rule and they aren’t that uncommon. But I agree that the two (fashionable and brainy) are seen as mutually exclusive.

  29. lindsey,

    Wearing dress and makeup hardly prevents someone from getting her PhD. And yet, the more (stereotypically) feminine you seem, the less serious you are taken. At least this was my experience.

    Save for my hair (which is extra long), I dress and walk, etc. in a gender-neutral way. My hair is long because they used to cut it very short when I was a child. People thought I was a boy. So I promised myself, when I grow up, I’ll have my hair long.

    I guess I never really understood the connection between feeling feminine (=as a woman) and dressing in a stereotypically feminine way. I was always proud to be a girl and I never wanted to be anything else. Yet, I dress as a tomboy. I don’t see that (or myself) as being any less feminine than women who wear makeup and wear skirts. However, it’s obvious people see it differently.

    But it’s really unfair to suggest (as it seems, correct me if I’m wrong) that women should cut their hair and get rid of their dresses in order to be perceived as intelligent, or to even feel better and more fulfilled. If this worked for you, I’m glad, but please understand it might not work for other people. To suggest there’s something wrong about women who dress up, or to suggest they’re doing that only to “collect points” is unfair.

    Call me naive, but I think women should support other women when they want to be who they are.

  30. I’m so tired of it. honestly…. all it is wanting your way and upstaging another female you know she just wants a freaking job. Men are no better.

  31. Interesting topic…not a new topic…but always interesting. Ok…my take…women are so competitive because MOST of us have low self-esteem. We are always feeling like we have something to prove…if not to ourselves then to the next person. For example, I am on a diet, and so is a friend of mine…although, we have not admitted it…neither of us wants to be the last one to reach our goal. She recently joined a gym…but I promised myself that I would stick with what’s working for me and not worry about her progress of lack there of. At the end of the day I hope she reaches her goal…at the same time or after I do…just kidding…LOL!!!!!…women will be women…

  32. mocha,

    “Ok…my take…women are so competitive because MOST of us have low self-esteem.”

    Well, that seems like a huge, leaping assumption to make.

  33. Great topic. I have had to weed through my friendships after finally getting a backbone in my 40’s. The race to find a husband and being used as the wingman and getting dumped as soon as they find their match. I was so naive in my younger years and was not aware it was a competition to make sure who gets married last. One particular former ‘bestfriend’ was just vicious and unfriended me from her Facebook over some petty jealous fabricated scenario. She did not get the guy either and ruined a life long friendship. Women are just pathetic. It might be a lonelier life but at least I have my integrity and peace of mind.

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