Do women compete with each other? From best friends to archrivals, female peer relationships can be extreme and complex.

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At first glance, it may seem like men are more prone to competition than women. They can be more risk-tolerant and use more physical aggression toward each other.

Their friendships are by and large transactional, and their conflicts are typically straightforward and direct.

Women on the other hand often experience emotional depth and complexity in both friendship and competition.

If they seem less competitive than men, it’s because they sometimes enact their rivalry drive in more covert and clandestine ways.

Language matters

Sex and gender exist on a spectrum. We use the terms “women” and “men” throughout this article to reflect the terms assigned at birth. But your gender identity may not align with the behaviors listed below.

A therapist may be able to help you better understand what gender-based competition may look like for you.

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Female competitiveness predates the race for a seat at the boardroom table. Research from 2021 indicates that when women try to undermine each other’s success, it may be based on an evolutionary instinct to compete for limited resources like:

  • food
  • shelter
  • mates

But unlike men who were also vying for assets, women in some cultures couldn’t place themselves in harm’s way because of their childbearing roles. So instead, some developed adversarial skills that were less direct and more manipulative.

A 2016 abstract of interviews with 30 college women found that females today compete to demonstrate they’ve achieved “feminine ideals” in areas such as:

  • consumerism
  • media portrayals
  • perfection-seeking
  • relationships

Competitive behaviors might not be as direct in females as they are in males, but according to an older study, they’re also less likely to fizzle. The study found that women are less prepared than men to resolve their conflicts with same-sex peers.

The instinct to one-up each other persists today. If you’ve experienced conflict between female friends or female jealousy in the workplace, it may be rooted in survival-oriented competitiveness or ideals.

If your female peers are competing with you, it might seem like they’re just being mean. They may engage in behaviors like:

The goal of these behaviors would be to reposition you further down in the social rank, so you’re less able to secure the assets that your rival wants.

For your ancestors, those assets might have included a mate to hunt for food and provide protection. Women still compete for mates, but now they also might vie for:

  • athletic dominance
  • a promotion at work
  • popular appeal

Sometimes competition can inspire self-improvement. Your health-conscious cubicle neighbor who cycles 10 miles to and from work might motivate you to pack an apple each day and go for a walk at lunch.

Workplace rivalries may have other upsides too. They can make you more productive and engaged in your work and inspire you to enroll in additional coursework that could bolster your resume or qualify you for a new role within your company.

Female friendships aren’t immune to competition. Maybe there’s an outspoken member of your group who routinely sets the tone for your social events. She might simply be an extrovert, or she might be competitive.

Some competition between alpha females can prompt personal growth. Other times it can become toxic. If your competitive friend is causing you stress, it might be time to set some boundaries and have a conversation with them.

It can also help if you view the situation through the lens of competition as flattery. If your friend sees you as the high bar to reach, it may help to take it as a compliment.

The timeless objective of winning a mate is another way in which the competitiveness of men and women differ.

A 2020 meta-analysis found that men are jealous of their rival’s dominance. Women, meanwhile, experience jealously when their female rival is more attractive. Attractiveness can be an indicator of health and suitability to bear young, so it’s understandable why it’s a quality men might be drawn to, and women might covet.

If a female co-worker regularly takes credit for your achievements or a friend or relative gaslights you, they may be acting on the age-old instinct to suppress a rival. Men and women have a long history of competing with same-sex peers for survival, and it’s a behavior that persists today.

Women sometimes seem less competitive than men because they’re often not as direct in their efforts. Instead, they may engage in passive-aggressive tactics like toxic positivity or sarcasm.

Some competitiveness with a friend can be a productive influence and lead to personal growth. It’s wise to pay attention and set boundaries though, to ensure that a formerly friendly rivalry doesn’t cross a line to become a negative relationship.