Study plumbs new lows in female cattiness

These two pictures are of the same woman, dressed very differently. The researchers wanted to rate the attitudes of other women toward her.
Tracy Vaillancourt

This study is going to end up with someone complaining of entrapment - I'm just not sure who.

University of Ottowa professor Tracy Vaillancourt had heard enough so-called "positive stereotyping" of women - that they're more nurturing, more communicative, more likely to rule by consensus. "I was convinced, having lived life as a woman, that we're not as pleasant as some people make us out to be," said Vaillancourt.

So she designed a study pretty much guaranteed to bring out the worst in people - or at least in women. She told 86 women that they were being recruited for a study in conflict resolution. Half of the women were briefly interrupted in the fake "study" by an attractive woman who was dressed in a t-shirt in khakis. The other half were interrupted by same attractive woman, this time dressed in a tight, low-cut blouse and a miniskirt. Unbeknownst to the study participants, they were being videotaped. Other women were then shown the videotapes and asked to rate the subject's reactions to the attractive woman.

As you might imagine, the attractive woman came in for a bit of a roasting when she was dressed in a tight top and a short skirt. The women in this situation were more likely to roll their eyes at her, stare her up and down, and show anger when she was in the room. When she left, Vaillancourt says, the other women "laughed at her, ridiculed her appearance, and/or suggested that she was sexually available."

They also were quite likely to talk about her when she left the room. In no cases did the conservatively-dressed woman become a subject of conversation after she had left.

Women: Avoid catfights at the office

A second experiment showed that the other women in the room did not want the woman in the tight shirt and short skirt to be introduced to their boyfriend, did not want him to spend time alone with her, and did not want him to be friends with her.

It seems that overweight women, however, can wear pretty much whatever they want and not have to worry about being barred from socializing with the participants' boyfriends. In this experiment, the researchers also had some subjects interact with an overweight woman who was wearing a tight shirt and a short skirt. She didn't generate nearly as much animosity as the thin woman in the same outfit.

Vaillancourt says her study shows that women do compete with each other by being aggressive toward women who are perceived as sexy. She says it shows that the bad behavior familiar to viewers of, say, "The Bachelor," is not an isolated television phenomenon brought on by overzealous producers. Instead, she says, this behavior is a reality in our schools and workplaces.

I say this is nothing. Try doing this same experiment with an attractive woman and 86 men.

The results are being published in the journal Aggressive Behavior.

More on MoneyWatch
-- Why smart people make lousy teams
-- Why mentoring helps men more than women
-- Best companies for ambitious women

  • Kimberly Weisul On Twitter»

    >> View all articles

    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.