Competition Between Women

R. Gabriel Joseph, Ph.D.

This article is reprinted from: Psychology, 22, 1-11, 1985.



It was hypothesized that women attach considerable importance to the physical attractiveness and appeal of members of their own sex in a manner that is not paralleled in males. In addition, it was hypothesized that women compete among themselves in regards to attractiveness and seek to find faults with particularly attractive women, because attractive females are threatening to the self-image. Three experiments were performed with college undergraduate males and females. In experiments 1 and 2, one sentence cues, depicting attractive individuals looking at their same sex counterparts, were distributed to males and females. Although the cues were in all other respects ambiguous, a number of males wrote responses attacking attractive males who look at other men. Many females, however, responded by writing responses which emphasized jealousy, fear, envy, insecurity and mistrust. In a third experiment, female undergraduates were given a questionnaire based upon the competitive themes expressed in positive and negative responses made to the cues. The combined evidence indicated that a large number of females are highly critical of other women, particularly attractive ones, and are highly concerned about their own appearance in relation to other women.


"Appearances were enough, for the appearances won her popularity and that was all she wanted. She knew how to smile so that her dimples leaped, how to walk so that her skirts swayed entrancingly, how to look up into a man's face and then drop her eyes and bat her lids rapidly so that she seemed a-tremble with emotion. Scarlett was willing to appear demure, pliable and scatterbrained, if those were the qualities that attracted men. Just why men should be this way, she did not know. She knew even less about the minds of women, for they interested her less. She had never had a girl friend, and she never felt any lack on that account. To her, all women, including her two sisters, were natural enemies in pursuit of the same prey-man." --M. Mitchell

"Men are by nature indifferent to one another; but women are by nature enemies. The reason is no doubt that the odium figulinuum which with men does not go beyond the bounds of the particular guild with women embraces the whole se--they are all engaged in the same trade. Even when they simply pass in the street they look at one another like Guelphs and Ghibililines: and when two women exchange compliments it sounds much more ludicrous then when two men do so. The reason for this may be that with women all differences in rank are far more precarious than they are with men, and can be altered or abolished much more quickly, whereas with men a hundred different considerations are involved. Because women are all in the same profession (competitors for the attentions of men), they all stand much closer to one another than men do, and consequently strive to emphasize differences in rank. -A. Schopenhauer.

Is it true that most women "compete"and do not like each other? If so, why? Indeed, it has frequently been proposed that females attach considerable importance to the appearance and physical attractiveness of themselves and members of their own gender in a manner that is not paralleled in males (Fenichel, 1953; Friday, 1977; Mitchell, 1936; Reich, 1945; Schopenhauer, 1970); and presumably this concern is based on insecurity, which in turn gives rise to feelings of dislike.

Women, young women in particular, often seem to be inordinately concerned about their physical appearance and beauty and may seem to be easily threatened by other women who are perceived as attractive. One need only peruse the advertisements of most any conventional woman's magazine to find exploitive evidence of this tremendous concern; the message being: "you need help", "be more beautiful!"

Men and women are highly interested in feminine beauty. However, the emphasis among women appears to be "competitive." Woman as concept, is a potentially marketable product aimed at potential customers. As product women thus need to be aware of the physical appeal and attractiveness of other women, and upon changing styles, fashions, and other decorations presented as "in" by the mass media; that is, if they are to successfully compete.

Nevertheless, do female competitors necessarily dislike each other? Although not addressing this particular issue, in attempting to explain sex differences in achievement motivation, Horner (1972) has inadvertently presented evidence indicating that women feel quite negative and hostile about other women, successful women in particular. In these studies, Horner asked women to write short stories about the following sentence: "After first term finals, Anne finds herself at the top of her medical school class." Over 60% of Horner's females respondents wrote threatened, negative, and hostile stories about "Anne,"dwelling on her femininity and personality (see Tresmer, 1974, for a review of over 60 similar studies). In contrast, men who wrote negative stories when presented with "John"in a similar situation, focused on the "success"but not the masculinity or personality of the subject. Some "characteristic"female responses to the above cue are exemplified by the following:

Anne looks like a telephone pole and has purple eyes. Anne is a person who is mental case which likes to cut up people (Monahan, Kuhn & Shaver, 1974, p. 63).

After hearing the news, Anne realized that she was the only one that deserved it. This proves how conceited our friend is. Everybody thinks she's a bitch. Anne cares only for herself (Monahan, et al. 1974).

Surprisingly, "Anne"was often described as a "bitch", "sick", "unpopular", "stupid", "unfeminine", "ugly", or "selfish", by presumably normal college women. Apparently "Anne"is posing some types of threat to these young females."

It is unlikely, however, that these young women were in fact threatened by "Anne's"success in medical school, for Horner (1972) found that these women responded similarly to the following cue: "Anne is sitting in a chair with a smile on her face." Some "characteristic"responses cited by Horner (1972) are exemplified by the following:

Anne is recollecting her conquest of the day. She has just stolen her ex-friend's boyfriend away, right before the high school senior prom because she wants to get back at her friend.

She is sitting in a chair smiling smugly because she has just achieved great satisfaction from the fact that she has hurt somebody's feelings.

As based on popular literature, the mass media, advertisements, experience in general, as well as from a perusal of the above responses, there certainly seems to be sound reasons for at least suspecting that many women do not like each other. However, it seems that a primary motive is competitive. Thus, many women express their dislike by finding fault with "other" women so as to presumably bolster their own self-image. They thus seem to be inordinately concerned about physical attractiveness, as well as identifying differences in quality and degree of physical appeal when interacting with other women, so as to make comparisons and thus compete. They are motivated to find fault with other women so as to ultimately reduce threat.

Given the obviously unsubstantiated nature of these propositions and the exploratory nature of this study, the following series of experiments were conducted so as to shed further light on the tendency of some women to compete, as well as to determine what stimuli elicit competitiveness, including situational determinants and intra-psychic conflicts regarding women in general.


Subjects. Two hundred and forty female and 130 male undergraduate students served as volunteers. However, 22 of the female and seven of the male respondents were eliminated for failing to provide an adequate response. All subjects were white and between the ages of 17 and 24.

Materials. A single sentence describing a female, male, or both, in an ambiguous setting was presented on an otherwise blank sheet of white paper. There were a total of eight ambiguous sentences (cues), each concerning a different social setting, or the appearance of the male or female. The following cues served as stimuli: (1) Carol is sitting in the shade; (2) Carol is talking to Bob; (3) Carol is talking to Bob, a boy her best friend is interested in; (4) Carol, an attractive young woman is talking to Bob, a boy her best friend is interested in; (5) Carol is staring at Bob; (6) Carol, an attractive young woman, is staring at Bob; (7) Anne (a very attractive women), is watching Carol talking to Bob, and (8) Carol is watching Anne (a very attractive woman), talk to Bob.

Female subjects received the preceding cues. Males received identical cues with the exception that the sex of the characters were reversed, such that "Bob"was used in place of "Carol", and "John"in place of "Anne".

Procedure. All subjects were approached outside their dormitory rooms during the evening hours by two experimenters (male and female students) who asked if they would volunteer five minutes of their time for the purpose of the study. A cue was randomly selected wand the subject simply told to write anything they wished on the paper and that even writing nothing would be appropriate. Subjects were assured of anonymity. After approximately five minutes, the two experimenters returned to the subject's room and collected the response.

Scoring. Two female raters independently judged all responses for two types of imagery criteria; negative and neutral-positive. In all cases, due to the pilot nature of the study, responses containing any type of negative imagery were scored as negative. Blanks and unscorable responses such as "so what"were eliminated (see Subjects). Raters agreed on 88% of their imagery scores. Discussion, however, resolved the designations for the remaining 12%.


To assess sex differences in cue elicited negativity, a corrected Chi analysis was performed for each of the eight cues. No significant differences were found in response type for cues 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. However, females were found to respond with significantly more negative imagery than males to cues (4). X2 = 4.512, p <.05; (7) X2=15.682, p <.01; (8) X2 = 11.156, p < .01.

Males. Content analysis of male responses to cues 3 and 4 indicated similar types of negative and positive responses. Characteristic neutral responses are provided below:

Nothing wrong with that, it's a free country.

The actions by Bob seems simple enough. However, the relative clause which identifies Carol might be an enticement to question Bob's motives.

Negative male responses are characterized by the following:

Bob should start writing his will because he soon shall have the shit beat out of him.

What does Carol look like? If she is any good, it might be a good time for Bob to get a piece of ass; fuck his best friend; Carol probably won't tell anyway.

Interestingly, when a male cue was described as watching another male, there was significant increase in negative imagery (cues 7 and 8 compared to cues 1-6), p< .05, over 40% of which emphasized homosexual themes:

The only thing I don't understand is why Carol is in the sentence at all. John is obviously a God-damned queer.

Females. Content analysis of responses to cues 3 and 4 indicated a significant increase in negative imagery when a female was designated as attractive (cue 4) as compared to no specifications, X2 = 5.10, p <.01. However, neutral-positive responses remained similar:

She is sizing him up as to why her friend is interested in him, and, at the same time, trying to get a few positive remarks about her friend into the conversation.

The following are characteristic negative responses:

It seems there is more than one person interested in Bob. Carol probably is just as interested in Bob and wants to beat her best friend to him.

Secretly she is trying to let Bob know that she herself is much more attractive and intelligent than her best friend.

Knowing most girls, the best friend will probably get very jealous of Carol's talking to Bob even though it may be a very innocent conversation. However, maybe she is trying to make her best friend jealous.

Cues 7 and 8 drew the largest number of negative responses, most of which centered upon resentment, insecurity, and attire. Eight-six present of the females in our sample responded negatively to both cues which differed from cues 1-6 in the designations of attractiveness and watching of one another. The following are characteristic examples of negative responses:

Jealousy, envy, nosey, curious. She may be thinking that her looks aren't good enough. She also may be waiting on either one or looking at their attire.

Carol is resentful of Anne, or Carol could just really like the outfit Anne has on.

Carol feels bad because she is not as attractive as Anne. Carol plans to talk to Bob in the future when Anne is not around.

Look at her just pouring it on Bob. Sticking her bobs in his face. She's such a jerk! She makes me sick.


In the negative responses made by females in cues 2 through 8, several related themes were apparent; (a) envy and jealousy, (b) concern about personal attractiveness and the appearance of the other ("Anne"or "Carol") female, (c) insecurity, (d) mistrust of the other female. Although males mentioned mistrust of males and females alike, there were no references to insecurity, attire, attractiveness, or other aspects of appearance except in reference to the female cue. One might suspect, however, that this apparent unconcern may be a matter of personal fear and inhibition as well as indifference. This point is illustrated by the large number of the negative responses to cues 7 and 8 which were sometimes angrily concerned with the "abnormality"of a man who would look at another male.

Hence, both males and females appear to respond with negativity to situations involving attractive individuals of the same sex, especially in the case of males, if the individual happen to be looking at one another. Hence, females appear to respond with jealousy and insecurity, whereas males tend to react with repugnance.


Subjects. One hundred and thirty-five female and 95 male undergraduates served as volunteers. Eight of the female and 13 of the male responses were eliminated, however, for failure to provide a scorable response. All subjects were white and between the ages of 17 and 23.

Materials. Four ambiguous sentences were used as the projective cues: (1) Anne is looking at Carol, (2) Anne (a very attractive woman) is string at Carol, (3) Carol is staring at Anne, a very attractive woman, (4) Carol (an attractive young woman) is looking at Anne (also an attractive women).

Procedure. All subjects were solicited in a manner identical with the procedures employed in experiment 1. In all cases, males were given cues describing males, and females received cues concerning females.


Males. Both sexes overwhelmingly responded to cues 2-4 with negative imagery. However, in contrast to females, almost all negative responses of males were concerned with homosexuality and the "abnormality"of any male who looks or stares at another man, particularly if either man is attractive. Comparisons of cues 2-4 against cue 1 indicated a significant increase in negative imagery due to attractiveness X2= p<.05. Some characteristic responses made by males are exemplified by the following:

Totally ambiguous, eh? Rather- a poll concerning homosexuality.

John is some pimple face pervert, and Bob's fly is down.

Whoever wrote this is a fucking faggot.

John is either envious, angry, or sexually attracted to Bob.

Females. Although there were some suggestions that the females in the cues were lesbians, few responded as if there were anything unusual or abnormal about women looking at one another. However, in comparison to males, significantly more females responded with negative imagery to cues 3, X2= 4.992, p<.05, and 3, X2=20.5, p <.01. The responses were frequently concerned with "competition"and the need to make "comparisons." In addition, in comparison to cue 1, there was a significant increase in negative imagery when the cue was designated as attractive (cues 2-4) x2, p<.05. A neutral-positive response is characterized by the following:

Anne is moist likely sizing Carol up and comparing her to herself; trying to decide if she likes Carol's shoes, dress, or something about her appearance.

Carol is thinking how nice she (Anne) looks in that dress (or pantsuit or whatever) and is wondering if that style would also look good on her and maybe Anne would also look good with her hair cut short and that dress really looks like her (Anne's) style is so bright, and free and easy.

Carol is comparing the physical attributes of Anne to herself in order to evaluate herself and to detect the details of posture, makeup, hairstyle, etc. that she might imitate in order to appear more attractive. Of course, Carol would have a lesbian attraction to Anne.

The following are characteristic negative responses:

Carol feels a strong tension between them- definitely negative. She knows instinctively that they could never get along. There is a competitive sense to this feeling, even though they are equally attractive.

"As one attractive woman to another, dear, tell me, how do you keep from looking your age?" For some reason, I naturally assume that the conversation has "catty"overtones. This assumption would seem to be influenced by literature, since I have several friends who are 'attractive women' who don't threaten me at all. That is, when I am also feeling attractive.

She is probably looking at the other girl and analyzing her. Perhaps, in comparison to her, looking for faults and wondering how she would compare to her. Also, at her assets and the girls total personality and appearance.

Carol is very jealous of Anne's looks. She envies her pretty hair, nice figure, and attractive clothes. She wishes what she could be more like her.

Carol is a snob and always wears the "right"clothes, and says the "right"things (in Carol's eyes).


The combined evidence from experiments 1 and 2 demonstrates that a large number of females (but not all females) are highly critical of other women; particularly attractive ones, as they appear to have some "threatening"quality. The overwhelming concern appears to be: who is more attractive and how does one become more attractive. In contrast, content analysis of all response made by males indicates no concern whatsoever regarding appearance, attractiveness, or physical attributes of their same sex counterpart. Either due to inhibition or indifference, it appears to be a rare male who ponders what he might look like in John's pants. However, as demonstrated by negative and neutral-positive responses, females are likely to ponder exactly such a question.

Another interesting contrast is also readily evident. Although males are very likely to fault a male for looking at another man, women look at other females to find faults, as well as to make comparisons. The apparent goal of this behavior is to bolster as well as make improvements in the self image. However, this need to be more attractive is so intense that when a physical flaw is contraindicated (such as when both females are attractive) conjecture takes its place, and motives and personality are attacked.

These findings, however, must remain qualified, for the subject population are single college age individuals; such women may be especially prone to competitive pressure regarding their appearance and attractiveness, and thus more insecure than more mature individuals. However, not all women sampled responded with competitiveness and negative imagery.


A content analysis of all negative and neutral-positive responses made by females yielded 20 interrelated competitive themes. These form the basis of a questionnaire containing 26 items regarding competitive relations.


Subjects. One hundred and six female undergraduate between the ages of 18 and 24 served as subjects. All were white and living in the student dorms.

Materials. The questionnaire consisted of 26 statements and questions with space provided for respondents to indicate their degree of agreement: (a) usually true, (b) moderately true, (c) seldom true, and (d) rarely true or false. In addition, a space was provided for "comments or criticism."

Procedure. Subjects were solicited as in experiments 1 and 2, and were requested to select the response they felt best described the validity of each statement. Experimenters returned for the completed questionnaire after approximately ten minutes.


The data was tabulated but not subjected to statistical analysis. Results and eliciting statements are presented in Table 1, and summarized as true/false.

Statements in the "comment"section were numerous (70%) and quite relevant to the construct other consideration. The following are some characteristic responses:

I don't think an objective questionnaire is a good way to handle such a subject as this. For example, if I were to observe my answers to this questionnaire, I would draw the conclusion that all women were insecure, cruel bitches, when I actually feel that only a few women are this type. Your questionnaire tends to establish false conclusions, whereas an essay questionnaire would not make this mistake.

Just living on a freshman hall you observe much of this "competitiveness." I don't know if it's because of my northern upbringing, or what, but I've noticed the different ways people here feel about each other. Life at this school is much more "date oriented"and that in itself probably leads to much of this feeling of competition. I must admit that I see myself changing towards this trend, and when the mood hits I "compete"too.

From this it can be inferred that most women are basically insecure, which is probably true. I think the more attractive a woman is, the more concerned she is with her looks.

I think competition is natural to human beings--women and men both compete with their own sexes. The only thing women have had to compete with until recently is looks, whereas men have had work, sports, etc. I think that today more women are becoming aware of the insanity of always competing with each other and disliking each other, and will soon being to compete in other areas and more with men now that the women's movement is in full swing. Also, today's society places such an emphasis on being one of the "beautiful"people that most people have forgotten that beauty is only skin deep.

This is very common because we women are vain. The society is structured in such a way that it makes us that way. Women always look at other women, especially attractive ones. It's sort of like sizing them up. What they have on, how they wear their hair, their make-up (if they wear any), and all those other sort of superficial things we've been trained to admire.


It has been demonstrated that many college age females attach considerable importance to the appearance and physical attractiveness of members of their own sex in a manner that is not paralleled in males. This behavior is specific to females and is concerned primarily with the identification of differences in degree of attractiveness and appeal, focusing on such items as hair, complexion, smile, make-up, teeth, and other body parts and decorations. Hence, when many young women encounter another female, they will usually scan her thoroughly, particularly if she is attractive. In fact, whereas a man might "check out"a woman's legs, breasts, face, buttocks, and hips, a woman will visually engulf all of the above plus hair, complexion, clothes, height, smile, arms, hands, waist, teeth, make-up, voice, etc.

Moreover, many of these women are highly critical when evaluating other females, presumably because of the high premium society places on feminine appeal and physical beauty and the need to maintain an adequate self-concept. Hence, attractive women are viewed as potentially threatening to the self-image and thus faults must be found to ease the interpersonal impact.

Indeed, this need to be more attractive, or feminine, is so intense that when a physical flaw can't be found conjecture often takes its place; for example, "She's probably dull in bed." Or her personality is attacked: "She's such a bitch." Sometimes compensation is attained through rationalizations: "She may be better looking, but I'm more articulate." However, a woman by no means needs to be attractive for another woman to find fault with her, she need only be another woman. Of course, competition may also include a vicious quality, such that some woman are subject to overly harsh evaluations and treatment from females who are deeply troubled by their own insecurities: gossip, when used to discolor or ruin another's reputation, is an example.

One might speculate, however, that competition between and among women is largely due to the restrictions placed upon females in regards to interpersonal and professional development. Presumably, for young girls, there is an emphasis placed on developing and maintaining interpersonal relationships. She is encouraged to cling to her mother's skirts, seek adult attention and protection, and to serve the needs of others (Block, 1973; Bakan, 1966). Her father holds her on his knee, calls her "daddy's little girl"and speaks gently and sweetly to her (Block, 1973; Hartley, 1964). Her mother fusses with her hair, dresses her in dainty little outfits and tells her how pretty she is. Her caprices and tears are viewed with indulgent sympathy (at least as compared to boys). Continually, she finds these "feminine"acts reinforced and approved through agreeable glances and warm bodily contact--particularly from her father (Block, 1973). She is an object, mommy's little doll, solely concerned with how neat, sweet, pleasing, and pretty she appears. Presumably, so powerful are these socializing forces that the young girl finds feminity as supposedly dictated and defined by society to be a woman's chief concern, one she must spend considerable time cultivating.

Because she identifies with feminine referential terms, actions, and reinforcements, they become important sources of stimulation which are selectively attended to and sought out in the environment (Baum, 1957; Hartley, 1965). Consequently she spends a greater amount of time attending to her appearance and keeping in style, and thus, competing for positive reinforcement. This, of course, demands that she be aware of the appearances and actions of other females, so that she may make important comparisons, using these other women as both role models and competitors. Since the developing girl increasingly sees her body not as something for herself, but as for others, she sees the body of other women in this same light; as objects she must compete with. For security in themselves, they feel a pressing need to establish themselves as superior to the woman they compare themselves with.

However, to place the "blame"on society and environmental forces is circumlocutions and circular, the positing of creation ex-nihilo: women are the way they are because men and women make them that way (or, a ball is round because it is a ball). On the contrary, although environmental influences are a significant factor in all aspects of sexual, cognitive, and neurological development (Casagrande & Joseph, 1980; Joseph & Casagrande, 1980; Joseph & Gallagher, 1980; Joseph, 1982), one must also seriously consider the biological contributions which give rise to behavioral, mental, and neuro-physical sexual differentiation (Harris, 1978; Joseph, Hess & Birecree, 1978; Joseph & Gallagher, 1980; McGlone, 1982; Wickler, 1973).

I have often heard women explain that they do not dress for men, but for other women. Of course they also dress for themselves and spend a good deal of time preening before a mirror. In part, the female need for elaborately decorating the body is a result of a biological predisposition to attend to parts and details, gather objects and food items, and to respond to physical attributes and visual signals denoting social status and sexuality (e.g., dominance) of males. Indeed, among most mammals and primates it is not the female but the male who is most colorful, the best proportioned, and who sports the thickest, most luxurious coat of hair, be it body, facial, or cranial; and it is this display of coloration, etc., which is used by males for communication, and which also acts to lure or attract the female to the male (Jolly, 1972; Wickler, 1973). Simply, the male of the species are more beautiful than their female counterpart. Take for example, the peacock. (However, I (for one) must admit that the human female is certainly more sexy than the human male; and, indeed, it is the constant sexual receptivity and availability of the human female (as contrasted with all other primates and mammals) which also in part exerts a pressure for them to emphasize their availability via lipstick, make-up, and olfactory cues.)

Presumably, because the human male has lost much of his body hair and (at least among "civilized"cultures) keeps the bulk of the body under very plain (non-colorful) wraps, the human female having a need to be exposed and stimulated by such coloration, has in vacuu began decorating her own body. Indeed, she does this because the male of our society has ceased to display the adornments which females most readily respond to. Like the need to go gathering for fruits and nuts (replaced by the activity called "shopping"), the need to decorate the body as well as the attention women expend in analyzing the body decorations of other women, may well be at least partly an expression of an unfulfilled biological predisposition.

Although one can only continue to speculate at this juncture as to the cause of competitiveness among females, one can surely find abundant evidence that female beauty and attractiveness is a concern of both men and women. Many advertisers have certainly recognized and capitalized upon these interests, and have possibly added to the sense of insecurity among women by emphasizing the need to be more beautiful, to have larger breasts, etc. Female attractiveness is, of course, also of inordinate importance to males, easily outweighing (so it must seem) other facets (intelligence, personality, character, etc.). Many young women believe, in having to contend with the failure of many males to take them seriously on other levels, that they must accentuate and concentrate on those features that will be easily noticed and applauded. Hence, in order to gain favor and attention, many women try to maintain an optimal level of attractiveness, and believe that they stand to lose their share of the stakes when a woman more attractive is present.


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