Women Can Act Aggressively, Too

Competition goes beyond feeling threatened by another woman’s looks and encompasses judgements about behaviors, too

Chung Wing Yeung

Male competitiveness for mates is well studied by researchers. It fits into a long-running narrative about how society works: active men compete for passive women. But lately, researchers began to examine the possibility that women are subjected to the pressures of competition just as stiffly as their male counterparts. And new research shows that aggressive female behaviors likely evolved years ago as ways for women to assert dominance and maintain control of the best mates.

The New York Times explains:

The old doubts about female competitiveness derived partly from an evolutionary analysis of the reproductive odds in ancient polygynous societies in which some men were left single because dominant males had multiple wives. So men had to compete to have a chance of reproducing, whereas virtually all women were assured of it.

But even in those societies, women were not passive trophies for victorious males. They had their own incentives to compete with one another for more desirable partners and more resources for their children. And now that most people live in monogamous societies, most women face the same odds as men. In fact, they face tougher odds in some places, like the many college campuses with more women than men.

In the study, researchers recruited pairs of female students, who did not know the real purpose of the experiment. While waiting in a lab, an actress hired by the researchers entered the room, ostensibly looking for directions to another lab.

The actress had some scientifically verifiable characteristics of an attractive person, like an hour-glass figure. But sometimes she wore baggy clothing when she barged into the lab, and other times she entered wearing a tight, low-cut shirt and a miniskirt. Unbeknownst to the female participants, their remarks and reactions were secretly being recorded. “In jeans, she attracted little notice and no negative comments from the students,” the Times describes, “but when she wore the other outfit, virtually all the students reacted with hostility.”

The results of the experiment jibe with evidence that this “mean girl” form of indirect aggression is used more by adolescents and young women than by older women, who have less incentive to handicap rivals once they marry. Other studies have shown that the more attractive an adolescent girl or woman is, the more likely she is to become a target for indirect aggression from her female peers.

The researchers’ take-away here is that women, not men, are most likely the predominant reason that promiscuous women are oftentimes ostracized from society. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Women control a valuable resource–sex–which gives them power over men. Loose women threaten to disrupt that balance of power by making the resource too readily available, the Times explains.

But, as many writers who regularly cover gender and sexuality have noted, it’s not clear that it’s necessary to make that leap. Refinery 29 writes, ”Kim Wallen, a psychologist at Emory University, notes that Vaillancourt’s piece was only based off of other studies, “none of which contain data showing that indirect aggression is successful in devaluing a competitor.” In other words, if women are acting aggressive towards other women in order to keep them away from men, it’s not necessarily working.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Why Women Like Deep Voices and Men Prefer High Ones 
Autism Is Likely Under-Diagnosed in Women Due to a Gender Bias

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