Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Female-Female Strategies

  • Maryanne L. FisherEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_81-1


Relational Aggression Reproductive Fitness Cooperative Breeding Mating Competition Indirect Aggression 
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Behaviors or actions that females engage in against same-sex others for the purposes of maximizing reproductive fitness.


Female intrasexual competition has gained considerable momentum as a topic of study (see Fisher 2013). The majority of this work, as it applies to humans, is focused on mating competition. However, there has been a surge of recent interest in human competition outside of this context. Thus, competition over limited resources important for reproductive fitness is first reviewed and then issues pertaining to mating competition. Given the strategies involved in women’s intrasexual competition are typically subtle and indirect, research on relational and indirect aggression is presented. After this discussion, the four types of strategies that women use within mating competition are reviewed, followed by a section on future work.

Human females, like females of many mammalian species, are group living and reap the benefits associated with sociality. Among mammals, these benefits may include decreased predation and increased access to resources. However, individuals within groups also face costs, such as the transfer of pathogens, increased probability of infanticide, and competition for limited resources and mates (for a review of the costs and benefits of mammalian sociality, see Ebensperger et al. 2012). The outcome of competition for resources and mates is critical, as it confers reproductive benefits that directly influence reproductive success.

Competition for Limited Resources and Mates

These limited resources are ones that vary in quality and may include food, territories, and protection (see Stockley and Bro-Jørgensen 2011), all of which impact on the well-being of the female and her offspring. Gestation, and in particular, lactation, places high energetic demands on females, such that the ability to locate and acquire food may constrain reproduction. Indeed, the distribution of food is thought to be one of the major determinants of within group competition (Isbell 1991). For example, due to limited food resources, there may be clearly defined female dominance hierarchies resulting from aggression, increased home range size in conjunction with increased group size in order to acquire additional resources, and longer distances traveled each day in response to increased group size (Isbell 1991).

Therefore, females should compete for access to food, in order to sustain reproduction. This competition has many repercussions. For example, Stockley and Bro-Jørgensen (2011) review how dominance is important for some species, given that dominant females may have improved access to better food, drinking sites, nest sites, territories, and better protection (e.g., be in the central, safer position of a pack during an attack). However, while dominant females seem to have higher reproductive success in many mammalian species, especially in free-ranging species where resources are limited, it is not ubiquitous (see Stockley and Bro-Jørgensen 2011).

As a side note, that females intrasexually compete outside of a mating context has led some scholars to question Darwin’s view of sexual selection and argue that it is overly narrow (e.g., Clutton-Brock 2009). Thus, there has been debate as to whether there should be a distinction for within-species dynamics to be divided between sexual selection (i.e., competition for access to, or retention of, mates) and social selection (i.e., access to, and retention of, resources that impinge upon reproductive success but are outside of a mating context).

With respect to competition for mates, it must first be noted that females and males of many species energetically invest to differing degrees in offspring (for a review, see Trivers 1972). In mammals females substantially invest energetically in offspring, so they must compete to guarantee the highest rate of return on this investment (i.e., that their offspring survive and reproduce). Males, by contrast, do not need to invest much, and indeed, in approximately 95 % of mammalian species, there is a pattern of intense male intrasexual competition for access to mates and minimal parental investment, coupled with discriminative female choice (Clutton-Brock 1989).

However, in humans, many men do provide some investment, by provisioning, childcare, and/or protection, and hence, women intrasexually compete for men high in these attributes. Men differ in their abilities to protect offspring and in their abilities to provide resources. Protection and provisioning by men very often increase the survival rate of offspring, and as a result, are important resources for women. Subsequently, good protectors and providers are in greatest demand and are relatively rare. Moreover, men with superior phenotypes (which may indicate superior genotypes) are also in demand. Women attend to cues that may signal sterility or impotence (Campbell 1995) and hence, notice physical indicators of youth, strength, and libido when selecting mates. Note that some of women’s mate preferences for men’s physical characteristics such as facial masculinity may vary according to their ovulatory cycle status, but this has recently been debated (see Marcinkowska et al. 2016).

Inherent in Darwin’s (1871) theory of sexual selection is the idea that characteristics evolve to enable individuals to gain advantage over same-sex competitors thereby securing successful matings. Moreover, both elements have evolved in unison, so traits that are most preferred by the opposite sex are the traits that are of most benefit in same-sex competition. While there are some similarities, the sexes differ in their mate preferences in conjunction with the constraints of reproductive success (e.g., Buss 1989; Trivers 1972). That is, although both sexes consistently show a desire for mates who are kind, intelligent, and loving, there are some notable sex differences. Universally, men typically express a strong preference for attractive women as potential mates (e.g., Buss 1989), and thus, women compete in terms of attractiveness. Likewise, women tend to have a strong preference for men with financial security and access to resources (e.g., Buss 1989), so men compete to appear wealthy. Indeed, women compete via their attractiveness, whether it be through self-promotion of their own appearance, or derogating rivals’ appearance (Fisher and Cox 2011). Men compete via displays of their wealth (e.g., self-promoting or derogating the resources of other men; Fisher and Cox 2011).

Last, the anticipated duration of the relationship influences mate preferences. For example, women seeking short-term relationships place a higher premium on appearance (i.e., potential phenotypic cues of gene quality) and decreased importance of personality traits or traits related to accruing resources. Men seeking short-term relationships generally seek ease of sexual access and decrease preferences overall, but emphasize physical attractiveness and youth (i.e., potential proxies for fecundity) in long-term mates (see Schmitt 2014). Thus, individuals should adjust the form of intrasexual competition in relation to the intended duration of the relationship, given there are shifts in mate preferences. Findings indicate partial support, as reviewed later (Schmitt and Buss 1996).

Unlike competition for resources, there has been considerable research into competition for mates. Therefore, the remainder of this entry will focus on the latter topic.

Types of Aggression Used by Women in Competition

The primary way that women compete with each other is through the use of relational and indirect aggression. The sexes do not differ significantly with respect to the frequency of aggressive behavior in general (e.g., Bettencourt and Miller 1996). However, the form of the aggression is sexually differentiated, as women are thought to engage in more relational and indirect aggression than men. If the aggression involves the manipulation of peers via their relations and reputation, and/or interference with friendships and group inclusion, it is relational aggression; the only criterion is that relationships are the central consideration. Another form of aggression is indirect aggression, where a perpetrator tries to inflict harm while simultaneously attempting to make it appear as though there was no harmful intention (Björkqvist 1994), presumably to decrease the likelihood of retaliation. Often indirect aggression is used within the context of relationships and social networks, directed at someone’s reputation, or for the purposes of group exclusion, for example, and hence, it often falls within the realm of relational aggression.

Benenson et al. (2013) argue that one form of relational aggression, social exclusion, is of particular importance to girls and women. Social exclusion may reduce the number of competitors for resources that relate to reproductive fitness, and thus, be an effective strategy to aggress against other women. They further posit that women’s friendships may be less instrumental than men’s friendships, and thus, the cost of ostracism to the perpetrator is low. Indeed, compared to men, it does appear to be an effective and often used strategy among women, as they face relational aggression via ostracism more often, are typically more affected by it, and react more strongly (Benenson et al. 2013). One reason for its effectiveness and frequency of use may be that women tend to prefer interactions that are one-on-one, whereas men tend to engage in larger groups; the probability of social ostracism is greater in the former than in the latter (see Benenson et al. 2013 for a review).

Indirect aggression is more often used by women than by men, and women less frequently engage in direct physical confrontation (e.g., Campbell 1999). However, it should be noted that women sometimes do engage in direct aggression; for example, Burbank (1987) found 61 % of the 137 cultures she studied documented women’s physical aggression, typically in the form of women fighting other women over men in an effort to protect their relationships and resources for their children. Moreover, Campbell (2004) found that women’s physical aggression most often occurs among lower socioeconomic classes, which may indicate that competition increases when resources are more limited. However, even in contexts where variables that influence the severity of competition are observed, such as sex ratios that are biased against women, age of oneself and potential rivals, or high variance in men’s resources, women’s use of direct aggression is still less, as compared to men (Campbell 2013).

There are various proposals as to why women rely on indirect aggression. First, because women generally possess less physical strength than men, they evolved alternative methods to aggress, and consequently, rely on different competitive strategies (Björkqvist 1994). Second, Campbell (1999) contends women are typically the primary caregivers and protectors of their children and engage in indirect, low-risk strategies to resolve disputes, which helps ensure they (and their children) remain alive. Third, Hess (in press) points out that the high costs of direct aggression are the same for all female mammals, yet nonhuman mammals routinely engage in physical aggression. Therefore, she argues that women engage in indirect aggression because it is particularly effective for competing against women, not because it is safer to the perpetrator.

How Women Compete for Mates

There appears to be four primary behavioral strategies that capture women’s intrasexual competition for mates. The first is self-promotion, which is the enhancement of one’s positive qualities, relative to those possessed by members of the same sex. This strategy was first documented by Buss (1988), who surveyed people’s use of self-promotion for the purpose of mate attraction. He found that among other characteristics, women self-promoted by manipulating their appearance and men by displaying and bragging about their resources. Walters and Crawford (1994) extended Buss’ work, widening the focus to be an investigation of self-promotion for the purpose of intrasexual competition rather than solely mate attraction. They largely replicated his results.

The second strategy that has been well explored is competitor derogation. This strategy refers to any act used to decrease a rivals’ mate value relative to oneself. Using surveys, Buss and Dedden (1990) found that women self-report a tendency to derogate rivals’ appearance, while men self-report they derogate rivals’ physical abilities and resources.

Researchers have examined self-promotion and competitor derogation together, in order to determine their use according to sex, relationship status, and context. For example, in a study by Schmitt and Buss (1996), both sexes were found to self-promote and derogate potential competitors when pursing a relationship, but that the length of the expected relationship influenced strategy use. With respect to self-promotion, men expecting a short-term relationship said they would emphasize immediately available resources, whereas those seeking a longer-term relationship focused on future resource potential. Women in the short-term scenario reported they would emphasize their sexuality and attractiveness, whereas those pursuing a long-term relationship promoted their faithfulness and sexual restrictiveness. The pattern for competitor derogation was somewhat similar, in that women pursuing a short-term relationship would describe potential rivals as “ugly,” “frigid,” and “unhygienic,” and emphasize a rival’s promiscuity in the long-term condition. Regardless of duration, men reported that they would say potential rivals were “promiscuous,” “dangerous,” and “unhygienic.”

In a meta-analysis, Schmitt (2002) found women were far more effective at using physical appearance for the purposes of self-promotion than men, but that this sex difference was dramatically reduced when it was within the context of competitor derogation. Generally, both sexes were perceived to be less effective when using physical appearance-related tactics for competitor derogation, as compared to self-promotion. In contrast, when using tactics related to resources, the sex difference was large, such that it was judged more effective when used by men than by women for self-promotion, and this difference increased when used for competitor derogation.

To make a more direction comparison of the two strategies, Fisher et al. (2009) asked students in a forced choice survey whether they would be more likely to self-promote or competitor derogate for particular contexts (e.g., regarding physical appearance). They showed that self-promotion was selected significantly more often, regardless of context, sex, or relationship status, than competitor derogation. They then asked members of the community to complete continuous measures and found that women, more than men, reported using self-promotion, while men reported more use of competitor derogation than women. Romantic relationship status mattered; dating and single individuals used both strategies more than those in common-law or married relationships.

Aside from the strategies of self-promotion and competitor derogation, there is also mate manipulation and competitor manipulation. Fisher and Cox (2011) asked students to list the ways in which they compete for mating attention, which replicated the existence of the former two strategies, and lead to the discovery of the latter two strategies. Mate manipulation is when an individual removes the target of the competition so that no competition is necessary, such as by sequestering the mate or displacing attention from a potential rival. The other is competitor manipulation, wherein an individual tries to convince a rival that the potential mate is not worth the costs of competition. They also found that most tactics were classified as self-promotion, followed by mate manipulation, competitor derogation, and competitor manipulation. There were significant sex differences as well; women were more likely to report self-promoting their physical appearance, and men were more likely to list direct actions such as bullying or derogating a rival’s material possessions.

The discovery of mate manipulation as a strategy was particularly interesting, as it highlights that intrasexual competition does not end at mate acquisition. After an individual has selected a suitable mate and gained access, she must still engage in competition to retain him and prevent him from leaving the relationship. The use of the four strategies may thus change, depending on one’s romantic relationship status, but also according to the intended duration of the relationship, one’s level of commitment towards it, perceived mate value of oneself and mate, and the existence of potential rivals who may infiltrate the relationship. These potential influences need to be explored by future researchers.

Issues to Address in Future Work

One area that warrants further investigation is how to include a multigenerational approach into studies of female competition. As Stockley and Bro-Jørgensen (2011) indicate, females use strategies that influence the quantity of offspring but also the quality of offspring in terms of survival and reproductive success. Thus, the key is not looking at the immediate offspring, but rather to take a long time perspective and document the outcomes in a multigenerational view.

Further, as mentioned, there has been significant research into women’s intrasexual competition for mates, but less work into resource competition. One avenue to gain insights into what resources are at the heart of women’s competition may be to look at cooperative versus competitive mothering and see how women strategize to maximize their reproductive fitness overall, even if it means sacrificing equal shares in gained benefit. For example, one inroad may be to join the ongoing debate involving cooperation for childcare and allomothering. Communal breeding is generally understood to result from competition over resources relevant to reproduction (Mace 2013). Among humans, for example, there may be competition for limited household resources, whereby inclusive fitness may be improved by sharing goods (even if the portions are unequal) rather than potentially harming relatives. While some scholars focus on cooperation among allomothers who provide childcare for related or unrelated individuals (e.g., Hrdy 2009), others focus on how this model is not readily applied to all human populations. For example, Strassmann (2011) reports that among the Dogon of Mali, mothers are critical for child’s survival and cannot be replaced by any other individual. She argues that cooperative breeding is a facultative response to a given environment, and as such, it is not species typical. The extent to which cooperative breeding is an appropriate model for humans thus remains to be determined. However, some researchers suggest that cooperation and competition go hand-in-hand and that it is reproductive competition between and within families that has led to fertility patterns such as menopause, and cultural norms such as marriage patterns, inheritance of goods, and location of residence (Mace 2013).

Research into cooperation and competition also illuminates a second issue: what causes a woman to decide that a potential member of the group represents and ally versus a rival? The literature on indirect aggression suggests prosociality may be the key. Aggressive individuals may be able to remain central to the group, obtaining personal gains with minimal personal cost. While group living leads to inevitable costs and competition among group members, it also leads to the acquisition of resources that may not be achievable by individuals working alone (Hawley 2003). Thus, Hawley (2003) proposes that in order to effectively compete, some individuals within the group are prosocial (i.e., indirect and cooperative), while others are coercive (i.e., direct and assertive). To maximize advantages, one should be high on both the dimensions of prosociality and coercion. These bi-strategic individuals possess high social competence, as they may act in a highly aggressive manner and still retain their status in a peer group. Within the context of competition for resources necessary for survival of oneself and one’s children, being able to sustain power and yet maintain social alliances would be highly advantageous.


Women deploy a variety of strategies when engaging in intrasexual competition, with the theme that they tend to favor indirect and relational aggression. Human strategies for mating competition, such as self-promotion, competitor derogation, mate manipulation, and competitor manipulation show the nuances of directing one’s actions and behaviors towards different audiences to reap the best competitive advantage. The overwhelming majority of literature pertains to women’s competition for mates, yet there has been recent interest in competition outside of this realm. Indeed, given that women heavily invest in children, one might argue that they should compete more for access to resources that improve their children’s survival than for mates, but this possibility needs to be explored. In general, the research on competition for resources shines light onto areas that need to be further investigated, including the actual resources that women compete over that enhance their reproductive fitness, and the strategies they use.



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© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologySaint Mary’s UniversityHalifaxCanada