Culturally Speaking

Challenging assumptions about culture, race, and mental health.

Friendly Competition?

Women and men compete differently in social situations.

man and woman face off

Women and men are both competitive.

It’s Not Just the Guys

Competition is a social process where people try their best to do something better than others so they can win. Although most research on competition is focused on males, it’s not just men who are obsessed with winning. Contrary to conventional wisdom, men and women can be equally competitive (Wieland & Sarin, 2012). However, women and men tend compete in different areas, which reduces the amount of cross-gender competition that might otherwise be apparent in everyday situations.  A certain amount of competition can be helpful when it motivates us, but it can be harmful in personal relationships, resulting in stress and relational dissatisfaction.

Women Compete for Men

Research on competition among women tends to be focused on females competing for males.  For example, one study found that women tend to be more hostile toward women who dress in a sexually provocative way and would be less likely to befriend such women or introduce them to their

Two women.

Women may compete covertly.

boyfriends (Vaillancourt & Sharma, 2011). These hostile feelings, or bitchiness as the authors call it, is explained as a sort of mate-guarding behavior.  Women worry that women who appear sexually available might steal their partners.

This concern is not completely unfounded. Women are socialized not to appear overtly competitive, and therefore may covertly aggress relationally. One form of relational aggression can be initiating sexual activity with a rival’s partner.  The cause of this is rarely a genuine interest the male target, but rather a means of asserting one’s social power over another female. The fallout of this type of competition is broken relationships all around.

Competition Between Coworkers

A man and woman racing.

Men and women compete.

There has been less research into female-female competition in other domains, or male-female competition in any area.  However, one recent study examined competition in the work environment, looking at feelings of jealousy between coworkers. They found that for men, social dominance and good social skills evoked the most jealousy, followed by physical dominance; greater physical attractiveness in a coworker generated the lowest level of jealousy. For women, the results were a bit different. Good social skills were the most jealousy-evoking, followed by social dominance and physical attractiveness, with physical dominance evoking the lowest level of jealousy. Interestingly, this effect was influenced by the presence of a same-sex supervisor, which seemed to boost competition and make rival coworker characteristics feel even more threatening (Buunk et al., 2010).

Friends May Compete Against Each Other

Women back to back.

Women may compete over beauty.

Traditionally, competition is thought of as a rivalry in which the success of one requires the failure of the other. But competition between friends may be a different animal. Interpersonal competition is a dynamic, ongoing process, where individuals may vie to out-do one another in a multitude of domains. Male friends may compete in sports, academic success, income, or status at work. Female friends tend to compete in areas such as attractiveness, fashion sense, weight, financial status, and the success of their children.

Competition Can Be Unfriendly

The issue of competition between friends and colleagues is important because although competition can motivate people to excel, it can also cause problems such as jealousy and envy. Trying to prove one’s superiority is personally threatening, therefore, competition can be harmful to a relationship at any stage of development. Relationships are less satisfying if one or both people feel like they are not measuring up, or that someone considered a friend is gloating over their failures.

In its worst form, competition can lead to broken relationships and relational aggression.  In many instances competition is motivated by a lack of self-esteem, leading a person to prove their worth at another’s expense.  Unhealthy competition is also fostered by Western society’s individualistic value system that emphasizes winning at all costs and “survival of the fittest.” However, cooperation facilitaties better quality relationships than competition.

Man and woman racing partners.

Cooperation over competition.

Feeling like Competing?

If you find you are obsessed with being the best or are competing with your friends at the expense of a good relationship, you might consider finding new targets to motivate yourself. For example, improve on your personal best at work or at the gym. Think of your friends and coworkers as resources rather than rivals. Set long and short term goals for yourself and focus on meeting those rather than outdoing others. These types of victories will be more meaningful and satisfying in the long run.  

 

References

Buunk, A. P., Goor J. A., & Solano, A. C. (2010). Intrasexual competition at work: Sex differences in the jealousy-evoking effect of rival characteristics in work settings.  Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27(5), 671–684.

Singleton, R. A. & Vacca, J. (2007).  Interpersonal Competition in Friendships. Sex Roles, 57, 617–627.

Vaillancourt, T. & Sharma, A. (2011). Intolerance of Sexy Peers: Intrasexual Competition Among Women. Aggressive Behavior, 37, 569–577.

Wieland, A. &, Sarin, R. (2012). Domain specificity of sex differences in competition. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 83, 151-157.

Monnica Williams, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at the University of Louisville.

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