Female Inhibition in Mixed Sex Competition

One frequently neglected topic is mixed-sex competition and its possible role in mate choice. Females tend to be less competitive and self-confident than males cross-culturally (e.g., Stetsenko, Little, Godeeva, Grassof, & Oettingen, 2000), but they also sometimes attenuate their competitiveness when facing a male opponent. This phenomenon is seen mainly in adolescence and adulthood, and is observed cross-culturally. For example, C. C. Weisfeld, Weisfeld, and Callahan (1982) documented it in the Hopi and African Americans, and also established that it occurs even in female-biased competitive tasks such as a spelling bee (Cronin, 1980). Interestingly, adolescent girls who exhibited this behavior tended to be unaware of it and often denied that they were not trying their hardest. The phenomenon has also been observed in women who use more tentative speech but only when addressing a man (Carli, 1990), and in women who act more submissively in mixed-sex groups compared with same-sex ones (Aries, 1982), and toward their husbands compared with other men (McCarrick, Manderscheid, & Silbergeld, 1981). Women who exhibit this inhibition also tend to differ in hormonal profile from those who do not (C. C. Weisfeld, 1986).

The function of female inhibition in mixed-sex competition is probably reproductive, given its predominance during the reproductive years. Callan (1970) suggested that it enhances harmony with one's husband, in that it reduces competition in this relationship. Then too, a wife may benefit from bolstering her husband's self-esteem and consequent performance in public arenas. Another possibility is that female inhibition increases a woman's appeal by making her appear more feminine. However, this last explanation is thrown into question by a review of the literature by Harter, Waters, and Whitesell (1998). They concluded that adolescent girls tended to be less self-confident when talking with boys than with adults or other girls, but that boys were also less self-confident when talking with girls. Adolescents of both sexes may be very concerned with how they are viewed by potential mates.

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