A series of four studies on undergraduate students indicates that women perceive other women as more competitive than men in contexts where resources are abundant. These findings were not found in men and were not found in contexts of scarcity. The new research was published in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences.
A common theme in popular culture is that of competitiveness between women. Most of the time, it is implied that this competitiveness happens in situations of scarcity, like, for example, when women compete for the same job (that not all of them can get). Although women in such situations often also compete with men, competition between women seems to obtain much more interest from the general public.
Competition between women often differs from that between men, as women tend to prefer to compete in more indirect ways. These indirect ways of competing include actions like spreading harmful rumors or excluding a rival from a social group. Research has also found that women tend to hide, disguise, or deny their competition with one another. Most of the scientific literature on competition between women has focused on competition for attracting a romantic partner, but competition also happens over financial and physical resources.
Study author Hannah K. Bradshaw and her colleagues wanted to examine whether the availability of resources changes how men and women perceive competitiveness of other men and women. They conducted a series of for studies.
Study 1 was an online survey designed to examine whether observers evaluate competitiveness within groups of males, groups of females and mixed gender groups differently. Participants were 243 undergraduate students and they were randomly divided into two groups. One group read a text describing and asking them to imagine a poor community and the other read a text describing a wealthy community. They then answered survey questions in which they evaluated how often competitive interactions occurred between females, between males and between males and females in the environment they read about.
Study 2 examined whether perceptions of competitiveness of others depend on the perceptions of scarcity. A group of 236 undergraduate students completed assessments of their beliefs about resource scarcity in their environment (e.g. “Financial uncertainty is increasing”, “There aren’t enough jobs for all who need them”, “People do not need to worry about resource availability because there is plenty to go around”). They were then shown photos of four males and four females and asked to evaluate their competitiveness. Based on the gender of the person on the photo and the participant giving the competitiveness ratings, the researchers made inferences about same-gender and different-gender competitiveness.
Study 3 involved 119 female undergraduate students. Participants were randomly divided into two groups. One group was asked to list reasons why they think the economy is worsening and resources are getting scarce (scarcity condition). The other group was asked to list reasons why they think the economy is getting better (abundance condition). After this, they completed the competitiveness assessment task that was used in Study 2.
Study 4 was intended to replicate the results of Study 3. Participants were 321 female undergraduate students and the procedure was similar to that of Study 3, but participants also completed additional assessments after the procedure.
Results of Study 1 showed that, in situations of scarcity, participants expected the highest level of competitiveness to be between males, followed by male-female and female-female competitiveness. On the other hand, in situations of abundance, participants expected female-female to be the most and male-female competition to be the least pronounced.
Study 2 found no general effects of resource scarcity or participant’s sex on ratings of competitiveness of persons in the photographs. However, female participants who had less pronounced beliefs about resource scarcity (i.e., believed that the economic situation in their environment is better) rated women in photos as more competitive.
Men who had more pronounced beliefs about resource scarcity (i.e. believed that the economic situation in their environment is worse) rated women in photos as more competitive than males (in photos). On the other hand, men with low levels and women with high levels of resource scarcity beliefs rated males and females in the photos as equally competitive.
Study 3 showed that participants, who were all females, expected that females in the photos would behave more competitively towards them than males (in the photos) in situations when resources are abundant. There were no differences in assessments in the group that imagined a scarcity situation i.e., that the economy is worsening. In Study 4, female participants also rated females in photos as more competitive than males, but this happened regardless of resource abundance/scarcity.
“Our studies demonstrate that women perceived same-sex others to be more competitive than cross-sex others in contexts where resources were readily available. This work suggests that, when resources are abundant, women may evaluate their same-sex peers to have greater competitive tendencies than their cross-sex peers,” the study authors concluded.
The study sheds light on important aspects of human social behavior. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, the study was conducted on undergraduate students attending a relatively upper-class private university. Results on people from different socioeconomic backgrounds might not be the same. Additionally, researchers asked participants to rate competitiveness of others, reasoning that people would try to hide their own competitiveness. However, expectations of competitiveness of others might not translate into how competitively people behave in real world situations.
The study, “Resource Availability Differentially Influences Women’s Perceptions of Same- (Versus Cross-) Sex Others’ Competitiveness”, was authored by Hannah K. Bradshaw, Jaimie Arona Krems, and Sarah E. Hill.