As I overheard a group of women this past week in line at a store verbally tear apart a couple of women within their social circle who happened to be absent, I was taken aback by the vitriol. As I reflected on how women talk about other women, I thought about what I've heard so many women say over the years: "Girls are so much crueler to each other than men." Based on fifteen years of clinical work with women who represent virtually every possible demographic variable (Come on, I trained in New York City), I can assuredly report that the women I've worked with report more critical views of other women than the men do with their own male peers.
Most women will tell you that they have survived at least one mean girl in their past: a girl who dismissed, put down, or even socially tormented them. What does the research say? It probably goes without saying that the research is complex, particularly because it is challenging (or impossible?) to measure a critical, negative or hostile attitude given the self-serving bias that makes people want to see themselves as good and upstanding. Fortunately, recent years have seen an uptick in attention when it comes to the research.
Research shows that women during the college years may have negative attitudes about particular types of other women. Vrangalova and colleagues (2013) found that female college students were less likely to want to be friends with another female who was seen as sexually promiscuous, when compared to the rate for male college students who wanted to be friends with a promiscuous male peer. The study showed that the women clearly noticed the promiscuous woman and also had negative beliefs about her as a result.
In terms of women's approach to competition, research from Benenson and colleagues (2011) is particularly interesting. According to the study, women may be more sensitive than men to social exclusion, and when they feel threatened by the prospect of being left out, a woman's first response may be to socially exclude a third party. Again, for any woman who's been on the receiving end of a female bully, this will come as no surprise.
In addition, Nicki Crick is a true rock star of gender research. Crick has devoted many years to investigating relational aggression, the type of aggression females appear to engage in more regularly than males (who tend to engage in more physical aggression). Crick would most likely argue that women's negative attitudes are actually a manifestation of relational agression. In a study examining the attitudes and aggressive behavior of fourth and fifth grade boys and girls, Crick and Bigbee (1998) found that girls were significantly more relationally victimized, while boys were significantly more overtly victimized.
In talking about the influence a mother has on her daughter, we also have to talk about social learning theory. Social learning theory reminds us that modeling has much to do with how children learn. The real but graphic truth is that there are many mothers out there in the world who aren't so sweet to their daughters, and readily say and do things that would make many of us cringe. It's critical to note that much of what is said and done by mothers that is ultimately hurtful was engaged under the veiled intention of having 'her best interests in mind.' I have found that women who are mean-spirited about other women were often raised by a mother who probably didn't like herself and didn't feel warmly toward women, in general, either.
The other factor that I see at work in my practice is anxiety. I find that the majority of female criticism actually stems from feeling inadequate in an area of life they value highly. For example, I have a female client who is extremely critical of other's parenting styles, but it's simultaneously worth noting that she has had great difficulty becoming pregnant and is currently in the midst of fertility treatments. With my client, she feels inadequate and defensive, and she defends herself by criticizing other women's parenting styles. In other words, she's not critical of other women because she thinks less of them; she is covetous of what they have instead.
The women I have seen clinically over the years also have reported far greater anxiety in the appearance department than men, and I see that the pressure women feel from men and the media to fit a certain physical type of thinness and beauty gets transformed to the point that they turn it on each other. Interestingly, one 2012 study from Snapp and colleagues found that young women with high family support and low levels of perceived socio-cultural pressure from family, friends and the media regarding the importance of achieving a 'thin and beautiful' ideal had a more positive body image. It makes perfect sense, too, so let's all agree to watch the amount of pressure we inflict on young girls.
I know, I know: Things seem to look good for Hillary in 2016, and there are lots of other examples of the progress American culture has made in terms of gender equality. Yet women continue to earn less money today than men and occupy fewer positions in politics and at the heads of Fortune 500 companies. Independent of what the research shows, it's understandable on a common-sense level if women feel that they must work hard to secure whatever social power they can, and this may sometimes take the form of exclusionary practices with other women. When it comes to our kids, I believe that there is much we can do and say to give our daughters the sense that their lives will be equally important to those of men, and I'll teach my daughter that she'll get there by supporting—and not criticizing—other girls. If I'm careful, one day she'll be a woman who will speak positively about other women.
Association for Psychological Science (2011, March 5). Mean girls and queen bees: Females threatened by social exclusion will reject others first. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 17, 2013, from <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com¬ " target="_blank">http://www.sciencedaily.com¬ </a>/releases/2011/02/110224121907.ht.
American Psychological Association (1998, March 26). Boys And Girls Are Cruel To Each Other In Different Ways -- But The Effects Are Equally Harmful. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 24, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1998/03/980326075743.htm
Z. Vrangalova, R. E. Bukberg, G. Rieger. Birds of a feather? Not when it comes to sexual permissiveness. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0265407513487638