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Are Women Their Own Worst Enemies?

Multiple Perspectives Shed Light On Why Women Are Their Harshest Critics

Women are often their harshest critics

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A fundamental characteristic of humans is to engage in social comparisons. We want to keep up with the Joneses next door: What car are they driving? What clothes do they wear? The type of toothbrush they use, etc. (Well, maybe not the last one.) Social comparisons are, of course, generally quite useful; they tell us which goals and interests are worthy of pursuit, and which opinions and world-views are valid.

But, there is a pernicious side to social comparisons as well: When engaging in so-called "upward social comparisons" you compare yourself to someone superior to yourself, undermining your sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Interestingly, not all upward comparisons are equally potent in terms of undermining self-esteem. Somewhat paradoxically, and unfortunately, we end up making upward social comparisons with those who are close to us--our siblings, or people from our neighborhood. It is most harmful to our self-worth, when we compare on a dimension that is relevant to us, sports if we are into sports or fame if we want to be famous. This is one reason why the people we hate the most, and the people who evoke the greatest amount of jealousy and envy in us, are the ones closest to us.

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An interesting related question is: Are women more prone to engaging in upward social comparisons than men?

Although no research that I know of has looked at this question directly, there are theoretical reasons to expect this. Both men and women look at members of their own sex as competitors for a variety of resources, especially mates; therefore they are likely to engage in same-sex comparisons. But women have an additional motive: they are relatively more interested in signaling higher status to other women because women of a higher status garner more of the available resources for their off-spring. Research findnigs show, for example, that women will more readily offer their help in nurturing the offsprings of other higher status, but not lower status, women. Men on the other hand, are genetically less prone to worry about garnering resources for their off-spring. This genetic difference between men and women plays out even in this day and age, and even among people in higher socio-econoimic classes, who don't have to worry about resource procurement. 

Put differently, women have one more motive for "one-upmanship" than do men: they need to provide for their off-spring and they recognize (if only at a unconscious level) that women of higher status are more likely to get a larger share of the available resources. As a result, women are not only more likely to engage in same-sex upward comparisons with women, but such social comparisons also evoke greater emotional negativity (anger, jealousy, hatred, etc.).

Preliminary results from studies, conducted by University of Texas-Austin Ph.D. candidate Jaime Confer, appear to provide support for this hypothesis. In the study, male and female participants were asked whom they most often try to impress by owning "nice things." As shown in the figure, men reported trying to impress the opposite sex more than their own sex, whereas the opposite pattern emerged for women.

Confer argues: These results seem to suggest that men show their nice possessions primarily to impress the opposite sex, whereas women do so to impress the same sex. The sex-differentiated nature of these findings highlights men and women's differing motivations to conspicuously consume--mate attraction versus status competition, respectively.

There are at least two additional reasons why women may be more prone to engaging in same-sex comparisons. First, there is little doubt that, although on the wane, discrimination against women is pervasive even in the present day (see this PT Blog); in particular, for the same caliber or quality of work, men reap greater rewards. As a result, women may justifiably feel that they have to compete more fiercely with one another because the resources "reserved" for them are scarcer. Second, because women are relatively new to the workforce, most work cultures are still largely masculine. As a result, women may feel that they have a greater chance of advancing their careers by behaving like men, which includes currying favor with men rather than with women. This could lead both men and women to be biased in favor of men.

Interestingly, recent developments at M.I.T. (the University decided to scale back pro-women policies for its faculty) are relevant: it was women who felt more strongly that the policies were unfairly stacked in favor of women (see NYT article). As the article quotes, "many female professors say that M.I.T.'s aggressive push to hire more women has created the sense that they are given an unfair advantage. Those who once bemoaned M.I.T.'s lag in recruiting women now worry about what one called too much effort to recruit women."

What all this suggests: Even as most women feel strongly about championing their own cause, they may also be undermining their cause in somewhat subtle ways (see this book and this Time article for related views). If so, an important element in the women's movement would be to recognize this tendency explicitly, and to find ways of overcoming it.

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Interested in these types of topics? Go to Sapient Nature. 

Raj Raghunathan, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor affiliated with the Department of Marketing at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business.

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