The cutthroat environment of the “girl world” depicted in the movie Mean Girls does not necessarily vanish after high school graduation. Social divisions eventually fade as groups like The Plastics lose their bearings, but the passive-aggressive nature of females’ relationships can be difficult to outgrow.
Authors Katherine Crowly and Kathi Elster explore the continuation of Mean Girls mentalities in their book Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional when Things Get Personal. The dynamics between women in the workplace are described as intensely competitive, often in a discreet manner.
The subtler jabs between women result from the struggle between nurturing impulses and “our darker side — feelings of jealousy, envy and competition,” according to the authors. Unlike men, who openly contend with one another, women have a tendency to displace their hostility by gossiping behind each other’s backs and subtly rooting for one another to fail.
In 2008, a study conducted by Emmanuel College found that men and women develop different ways of competing within their genders at an early age, as reported by ABC News.
Researchers looked at groups of three same-sex 4-year-olds, giving each group either one, two or three puppets. Boys and girls played similarly when there were two or three puppets to share, but when there was only one puppet for the group, their responses shifted. While the boys either asked for the puppet or grabbed it away from one another, the girls alienated whoever was holding the puppet as a form of punishment. These findings debunk the myth that women are less competitive than men, showing that women respond to anger with social exclusion as opposed to outward aggression.
Lisa Firestone of The Huffington Post writes that the “catty” relationships that develop between women are a function of an unhealthy cultural drive for women to suppress feelings of aggression. After generations of being labeled as the “weaker sex,” women have been trained to stifle their anger and instead use manipulative tactics to get ahead.
Firestone also pinpoints the “critical inner voice” as a source of tension between women, as the hesitation to express feelings of competition blurs the lines between rivalry and admiration. Instead of commending their peers’ assets, women tend to criticize one another for traits that they privately envy.
PsychAlive defines the critical inner voice as a “hostile, judgmental advisor” that “warns us about other people, promoting angry and cynical attitudes toward others and creating a negative, pessimistic picture of the world.” Listening to the critical inner voice can cause widespread damage that expands beyond a person’s individual relationships.
Boston College junior Jessica Carbone is a health coach at her school’s Office of Health Promotion, where she serves as a counselor for peers who are seeking guidance. Carbone defines conflicts between female students as “typically passive aggressive.”
“It is not until something has really built up that things are formally talked about,” she said. “Even this usually happens at night, when people return from a night out drinking.”
According to a University of Georgia study, the tension of catty relationships can be especially dangerous for college women who risk turning to alcohol as a coping mechanism. The study found a link between female students who act rashly under stress and alcohol, concluding that women who drink to change their emotional state are more likely to develop alcohol dependence in college.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for 2011 high school graduates, the college enrollment rate was 72.3% for women, compared to 64.6% for their male counterparts. In addition, women now make up more than 50% of the workforce.
With this in mind, the understated means through which women typically compete with one another calls for re-evaluation. Firestone offers four steps to guide women in translating their competitive feelings into a healthy expression: acknowledging these feelings upfront, resisting the urge to lash out, confronting the critical inner voice and allowing room for constructive competition when it makes sense to do so.