Monica Holmes had the prettiest hair of any girl in the fifth grade. Her chestnut locks flowed effortlessly down her back, while my delicate, thin hair broke off around my shoulders. Even so, I didn't envy her hair; I begrudged her braggadocio. No matter the context—recess, lunch, or a bathroom break—Monica couldn't say enough about her hair to anyone who would listen. "I just love my dark-brown, beautiful hair. Don't you too?"
By Christmas, I'd had enough. In the seat behind Monica during the annual showing of A Charlie Brown Christmas, in the darkened multi-purpose room, I stealthily stuck a big wad of pink Bubble-Yum gum in a wide swath of Monica Holmes's dark-brown, beautiful hair.
It wasn't one of my finer moments. But lest you think my preadolescent behavior was an anomaly, a recent study from the University of Ottawa suggests otherwise. Intrasexual competition is widely demonstrated among males, so researchers Tracy Vaillancourt and A. Sharma wanted to know whether or not intrasexual competition existed among women, often believed to be nurturing, communicative, and more likely to rule by consensus. "I was convinced," stated Vaillancourt, "having lived my life as a woman, that we're not as pleasant as some people make us out to be."
In the study, 40 women were put in a room in pairs, believing they were taking part in a discussion on female conflict. Then, "Conservative Kari" came in and called the research associate out of the room. Separately, another 46 women were paired together, but this time "Kari" became a bit more provocative in dress and presentation.
Predictably, Provocative Kari drew a number of negative reactions from the women, including gossiping, giving the woman a onceover, negative comments, or mockery. Conservative Kari was barely noticed. "This is not something that sort of happened," said Vaillancourt, describing the reactions. "Ninety-seven percent of the women were inappropriate."
Whether the women reacted negatively because they saw Provocative Kari as a rival or because they thought her outfit was inappropriate for an office setting is debatable. But Vaillancourt suggests that women are "intolerant" of "sexy" peers and use indirect aggression to slam potential rivals. Vaillancourt believes her study demonstrates that the bad behavior, i.e. "catfighting," we see on shows like The Bachelor is not an isolated TV phenomenon—it's a reality in our schools and workplaces.
But rivalry among females is not limited to sexuality. Sometimes our negative reactions towards other women are much more subtle. Anytime there is scarcity, there is a potential for derogatory attitudes that undermine the potential achievements of women, and nowhere is the principle of scarcity more at play than in Christian ministries and organizations.
According to a report published by the White House Project, a nonprofit promoting women in business and politics: "Although women constitute over a majority of churchgoers (60 percent), men continue to dominate leadership roles in the church," with women making up only 15 percent of Protestant clergy." So does the scarcity of leadership roles in Christian ministry and organizations lead to catfighting among Christian women?
Maybe. Given the enormous strides made by women in the past century, the lack of research on Christian women is appalling if not embarrassing. But the study I conducted last year among Christian men and women serving in Christian parachurch organizations points to, at a minimum, some relational tension between Christian women.
In contrast to the majority of studies of this kind, Christian women were perceived to be more "communal" than "successful leaders" or "successful female leaders." But they were rated as less likely to demonstrate certain relationship-oriented qualities, including compassion, fairness, good listening skills, inclusiveness, intuitiveness, sociability, and understanding.
Further, women differed from successful leaders in every single category, rating lower in characteristics such as ambition, analytical ability, assertiveness, self-confidence, competence, independence, intelligence, considerate, encouraging, inspiring, and trustworthiness.
These results suggest, first, that there seems to be some sort of relational tension among Christian women. Whether women actually demonstrate less relational qualities or they exhibit qualities that undermine relational qualities is unclear. However, in previous studies, women have usually scored higher on relationship-oriented qualities than any other group. But in this case, the data seems to support Vaillancourt's suspicion that women may not be as "pleasant" to one another as our reputation purports.
Second, Christian women don't have high opinions of other Christian women. In layman's terms, we don't have each other's back. In the Christian world, most of our attention has been focused on how men, as institutional gatekeepers, have prevented women from assuming leadership positions. But even we don't see other women as having what it takes to be a successful leader. So how might that make us feel about Christian women leaders who defy that expectation? How would that attitude shape how female Christian leaders feel about other women?
In her book Reinventing Womanhood, Carolyn Heilbrun claimed that the number-one reason women failed to reach leadership positions was not because men kept them out, but rather because of the failure of women to bond. Women don't support other women on the path to leadership, so when a woman does reach a position of influence, she does not bring other women along with her through mentoring or through encouraging the organization to accept more women leaders. "Women of achievement," writes Heilbrun, "have become honorary men, having consented to be token women rather than women bonded with other women and supporting them."
Our implicit views of Christian women are just as destructive as the explicit behavior of the women in Vaillancourt's study. Our attitudes about other Christian women cause us to feel inadequate when someone defies our standard expectations, makes the road for the aspiring female Christian leader a long, difficult, and lonely road, and in some cases may cause the female leader to denigrate other women.
In this vicious cycle, Christian women—and, by extension, the church—lose every time. Only when we increase our expectations of women and purposefully seek to encourage one another, build up one another, help one another, and seek the good for each other (1 Thess. 5:11-14) can we begin to understand that our vision for the future of ministry by Christian women can be expanded by validating and supporting our sisters in Christ.