We've all encountered women who are judgemental. I've heard friends say that 'girls are mean' and 'women are bitchy,' and talk of run-ins with other women that left them emotionally or socially devastated. This is baffling to hear. It is 2017 after all, right?
That said, the majority of women are striving to work together to improve the social environment we (and our daughters) inhabit. There's even a new media emerging targeted at women that is topical, witty and co-operative (the one you are reading right now, for example). Does this mean we are tearing our attentions away from each other and turning them towards ruling the world instead? Oh, I do hope so. That would be much more fun.
Before we do, there is a history of competitive female behaviour we must understand if we are to overcome it - our demons, if you will. Much of this history has been unearthed by the psychologist Joyce Benenson who spent thirty years researching competition between the sexes and surprised everyone by concluding that evolution designed women to be the more competitive of the sexes, whilst men form forgiving, co-operative groups.
What is riveting about Benenson's research is that it tells the story of a perfect storm of social, psychological and biological factors, which produce a fearsome survival instinct in women; one so sophisticated that I don't know whether to applaud or run for the hills.
If a perfect storm is created when a centre of low pressure develops within a system of high pressure, then the first gust of low pressure in our storm is that female new-borns are considered less valuable than males, which means that right from the get-go girls must work hard to stay alive. According to Benenson, female babies do this by endearing themselves to their caregiver - they smile more, cry less and, most interestingly of all, they learn to read adult emotions.
As a girl grows and the resources her mother can offer dwindle her competitive focus shifts to men to secure her own survival and that of her offspring and female relatives. The high-pressure system which surrounds this and makes it fearsome is that women need to protect their bodies for life long childcare. They dare not risk any physical damage or all is lost. Therefore, women must disguise their competition to avoid retaliation. Benenson cites competitive strategies such as avoiding direct interference with another girl's goals; competing overtly only from a position of high status in the community; enforcing equality within the female community (such as insisting on standards that become the 'normative requirements of proper femininity') and socially excluding other girls. Does this ring any bells yet? Because to me, it reads like every American High School movie script.
Although Benenson's discoveries are a chilling read, it does explain a modern-day conflict: our sensibilities bind us together but the darkest part of us is revealed when the most beautifully turned-out woman in the room arrives.
However, one positive of Benenson's research is that - at the centre of the storm - women's primary motivation is to provide for their kin. We aren't deriving pleasure from competition, we are merely under pressure to survive it. This is worth remembering when we are running low on compassion for ourselves and others.
So, if we are to accept that this evolution has created this competitive instinct in women, how are we to change? Barbara Markway, a clinical psychologist, author and founder of The Self-Compassion Project, has some sage advice to share. Interestingly, number one on her list is: 'Don't blame yourself. We are instinctively hard-wired for survival. The key is to pause before we act out of this mode.'
Barbara also suggests that we be mindful of our thoughts, look at our own behaviour first (she who throws the first stone etc), educate ourselves on others plights before we judge and, crucially, try to feel good about ourselves - all of which are the perfect antidote to our evolutionary shit-storm.
After all, we are clearly an adaptable species - as Elizabeth Edward's said, "she stood in the storm, and when the wind did not blow her way, she adjusted her sails."