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.
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?