The Powerful Woman

Why social comparison may leave her in the dust.

Posted Jul 01, 2020

Courtesy of Pixabay
Source: Courtesy of Pixabay


The self-evaluation maintenance model (SEM) of social behavior looks at three components: closeness to another, the performance of that person, and how that performance influences our self-definition (Tesser, 1988). According to Tesser’s model, we base our self-evaluation on close relationships. Therefore, the success of someone close (such as a romantic partner) may make us feel threatened. If a partner is very intelligent and successful, and these are attributes that are relevant to our own self-definition, our self-evaluation is lowered. Based on this, the significant other who feels threatened, to maintain his/her positive evaluation, would need to leave to avoid this comparison.

The Research

In a series of five studies conducted by Ratliff and Oishi (2013), they found that males report lower self-esteem when their girlfriends score high on tests, while women are not affected in the same way. It is important to note that men are not always consciously aware of this effect on their self-esteem.

Women are more likely to experience what is known as “reflected glory,” in that they share in the success of others, and as such would show a boost in self-esteem when their male partner does well or succeeds. This may be in part because women are more likely to view themselves as part of the relationship, and therefore feel success when one member succeeds, compared to men who use the success of the other as a standard by which to compare himself (Ratliff & Oishi, 2013).

This scenario can also surface when it comes to intelligence. Park, Young, and Eastwick (2015) have shown that when men rate hypothetical women, they pick someone very intelligent, but when it comes to actual dates, they are more likely to get threatened by the intelligent woman. As such, they are less likely to go on a date with her.

What Now?

Given this information, I have heard many women ask if they should downplay their intelligence or success when first meeting a potential partner. Absolutely not. It is important to be proud of who you are, what you have accomplished, and what you stand for. Not everyone is threatened by the accomplishments of others, and it is important to find a partner who values you for you. Additionally, if we are more explicit about what we are capable of, perhaps we can shift the dynamic and how people view powerful women.


Park, L. E., Young, A. F., & Eastwick, P. W. (2015). (Psychological) distance makes the heart grow fonder: Effects of psychological distance and relative intelligence on men’s attraction to women. Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(11), 1459-1473.

Ratliff, K.A., & Oishi, S. (2013). Gender differences in implicit self-esteem following a romantic partner’s success or failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105(4), 688- 702.

Tesser, A. (1988). Toward a self-evaluation maintenance model of social behavior. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 21, 181-228.