Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

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

Female-Female Competition

  • Maryanne L. FisherEmail author
  • Rebecca L. Burch
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_1408-1



Competition that females of a given species engage in against each other in order to access limited resources, including mates, that impact on their survival and reproductive success.


Females of many species compete with each other to gain access to limited resources that directly impinge upon their survival and reproductive success. Competition is usually highest among members of the same sex, given they most often compete for the same resources, including mates (see Stockley and Campbell 2013, for a review). Within-sex (i.e., intrasexual competition) is therefore a significant evolutionary pressure. During the last decade or so, there has been noteworthy research that indicates females can be as aggressive, or even more so, in competitive interactions than males (see Stockley and Campbell 2013, for a review).

Originally, much of the literature pertained to male intrasexual competition, but the focus has turned within recent decades to females (see, for example, Stockley and Campbell 2013; Fisher 2017). Perhaps this former neglect is because female competition is typically characterized as being subtle and covert (Hrdy 1999). It rarely involves escalating contests or exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics (Clutton-Brock and Huchard 2013), and in humans, women suppress it when men are present in order to avoid seeming undesirable (Cashdan 1999).

Female Aggression

Researchers have proposed a link between aggression and competition, such that aggression is necessary for competition to occur (e.g., Schuster 1983). While men are often found to engage more frequently in direct physical aggression than women, the latter engage more frequently in indirect aggression. Indirect aggression occurs when a perpetrator attempts to cause harm but simultaneously tries to make it appear as though there is no harmful intention (Björkqvist et al. 1992). Girls and women use indirect aggression when they engage in behaviors such as breaking confidences, criticizing others’ appearances, excluding others from the group, or spreading gossip (Björkqvist 1994; Owens et al. 2000). Social networks are often used, which further obscures intentions to cause harm and thereby reduces the possibility of retaliation and counter-aggression (Björkqvist et al. 1992).

Campbell (1999; but see Liesen 2013) suggests that women’s lack of direct physical aggression is a successful female adaptation that results in reproductive benefit. She argues that when women become mothers, they become the primary caregivers and protectors of their children. Hence, it is important for mothers to remain alive, leading to the use of indirect, low-risk, strategies to resolve disputes. She posits girls and women avoid competing for status and instead focus on competition for resources, using indirect means (see Liesen 2013 for a review). There are alternative views; for example, Liesen (2013) proposes girls and women use direct and indirect strategies, pursuing dominance and status to gain access to material resources (e.g., food, space, mates) but also to reduce female harassment and establish alliances. She argues that for girls and women, the goal is not to be at the top of a hierarchy but rather the center of attention where the maximal social, material, and reproductive benefits are located.

Competition for Mates

Women compete in many arenas, just like females of many species. Females compete for access to desired mates (see Fisher 2013 for a review), as well as for resources that may influence their reproductive fitness outcomes, such as food, nest-sites, protection, territories, and by interfering with the reproduction of other females (Stockley and Bro-Jørgensen 2011).

Women are obligated to significantly invest in their children, at least in terms of gestation and lactation, which leads to a decreased reproductive potential relative to men who have a far smaller obligatory investment. Females of many species compete when there are high levels of maternal investment, when paternal investment is beneficial, and where there are large aggregates of individuals living together which increases competition for proximal resources (Apicella and Dreber 2015). Human show all of these features. In addition to maternal investment, men, compared with males of other species, tend to provide high levels of paternal care for children (Clutton-Brock 1991). Humans also live in social groups with plentiful opportunities to be in close proximity to other mothers with children, leading to competition for scarce resources that effect the survival of themselves and their children, as well as further reproduction.

It is undeniable that women compete for mates. Universally, women intrasexually compete to gain access to high quality mates who possess phenotypic characteristics that indicate high genetic quality, an interest in (and ability to provide) paternal care (Gray and Anderson 2015), and an ability to accrue resources (see Fisher 2013 for a review). Women use a variety of information sources to make decisions about how and when to effectively compete. For example, women rely on information about rivals in their local environment to determine their own and potential rivals’ mate value, alongside the value of potential mates (Fisher and Fernández 2017). As another example, factors such as a scarcity of quality mates leads to increased intensity in competition (Dillon et al. 2017). The bulk of research findings apply only to single, young women from Western cultures and has, for example, neglected women who are married, above the age of the average college student, or mothers (Fisher 2017). Further, the vast majority of past work has focused on the hormonal underpinnings of women’s mating competition, or women’s use of beautification or physical alterations to outcompete mating rivals.

Competition Between Mothers

The overwhelming neglect of competition among mothers is particularly curious, given that such competition has direct outcomes on individual fitness. Mothers have found and potentially secured a mate, but they still need to ensure that mate provides care, time, and resources to herself and any resulting children. Also, once a woman becomes a mother, she does not necessarily stop reproducing, and indeed, she may engage in behaviors to remove the current child to increase her chances of reproduction or in securing a better mate (Hrdy 1999). Consequently, locating, obtaining access to, and retaining a quality mate are highly critical to a women’s reproductive success, in that it will lead to healthy children who ideally will survive and reproduce.

However, there are other domains outside of mating that impact on a mother and her child(ren), such as relational status, social dominance, and obtaining sufficient resources (Fisher and Moule 2013). These necessary resources improve child longevity and include clean drinking water and medicines, given that the most common cause of mortality for children under 5 years of age is infectious disease (68%; Black et al. 2010). Women, like all mammals, invest substantially, from the gamete stage, throughout pregnancy, lactation, and childcare. To benefit from this investment, they must ensure their children survive, which dictates that they compete for limited resources in support of themselves and their children (Stockley and Bro-Jørgensen 2011). The importance of this competition must be emphasized; Clutton-Brock (2009) suggests that females in many species may compete more intensely for reproductive resources than access to mating opportunities.

Cooperation and Competition

One of the most important issues for understanding female intrasexual competition is the delicate balance between cooperation and competition with same-sex others. The most likely allies are those who are around the same age, with similar personality characteristics, values, and mate value (see Fisher and Fernández 2017, for a review). However, these are also the most probable rivals for mates, status, or access to resources in support of children. The quandary of competing with potential allies poses a problem. Women may gain particular benefits through intrasexual competition (e.g., status, power, dominance, resources, potential mates), but at the cost of their friendships or alliances with other women. Maintaining a cooperative relationship is critical; women engage in intense cooperation because male partners can be absent, noncommittal, unable to help, or abusive. Without the assistance of other women, women and their children are in serious danger (see Sokol-Chang et al. 2017 for a review). In fact, circles of supportive women are at times called “survival networks” (Dominguez and Watkins 2003; Högnas 2010). Therefore, the issue becomes: how do women compete against same-sex friends yet remain in strong sharing, dyadic relationships with these individuals? One solution is to use indirect aggression, as outlined. Women may attack their victim circuitously, prohibiting the likelihood of being correctly identified (Björkqvist 1994). Alternatively, one may use an indirectly aggressive act under the ruse of self-improvement. A strategy women (and men) rely on is self-promotion, whereby one attempts to make herself look better than a rival. However, it is possible that she could say that she was not involved in a competition but merely engaging in self improvement, thus hiding any intention to compete (which may explain why self-promotion is the most often used strategy for intrasexual competition for access to, and retention of, mates; Fisher et al. 2009). In this way, competitiveness is hidden and enables women to remain allies with those they are competing directly against. As women proceed through their lifespan and change (e.g., have children, experience increases or decreases in their mate value and reproductive potential), they encounter situations where they must make new decisions about whether to cooperate or compete (see Fisher et al. 2017). Each of these situations has limitations and exceptions, as women may cooperate as a strategy to obtain mates, and mothers may forgo cooperation in favor of competing for limited resources for themselves and their children, for example. Herein lies the interesting dichotomy in women’s relationships with other women, as they must decide between providing cooperative support or being competitors with the goal of maximizing their own reproductive success.


Female intrasexual competition is observed in many species. The outcome of intrasexual competition influences access to limited resources that directly affect one’s survival and reproductive success. Consequently, female intrasexual competition is a significant evolutionary pressure. Here we specifically review women, and the link between their use of aggression and competitive behaviors. Women intrasexually compete to gain access to quality mates and also for resources, status, and other considerations that impinge upon themselves and their children. Women are faced with a difficult decision of whether to cooperate or compete with same-sex others; given the benefits resulting from cooperation, competition is likely to occur in a way that disguises either the perpetrator or the actual competitive act itself.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologySaint Mary’s UniversityHalifaxCanada
  2. 2.State University of New York at OswegoOswegoUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Douglas Sellers
    • 1
  1. 1.Penn State Worthington ScrantonScrantonUSA