When a study comes from a respected university, in this case the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business, one would expect a to read a less biased revelation than, “women seek luxury items to prevent other women from stealing their man.” The seemingly lighthearted study is, in fact, classically sexist and horrifying for both female students and the public.
Vladas Griskevicius, a management professor and doctoral student, carried out the study with Yajin Wang through the marketing and psychology departments. Their work has since been picked up by the Journal of Consumer Research.
The study claims four main ideas: that women are less likely to flirt with the husbands of a woman carrying designer items; that regardless of who purchased the items, other women would assume that a man bought them for her; that what a woman is wearing in terms of brand recognition is a sign of her man’s devotion to her; and that as a result, she buys things to ward of rival women who could (and otherwise would) threaten her relationship.
What the study showcases is the reoccurring theme of female cattiness and competition, in which women judge others based only on their perceived success with men. It hammers in the notion that a woman’s greatest desire is to have a financially devoted man, and that it’s not okay for lots of women to have a devoted man. If one does, the others need to out-do her. And if that notion isn’t enough, it paints the picture that women never have substantial relationships with their partners. According to the study’s logic, a woman walking around a department store who sees another woman without a designer handbag would subconsciously see that as an invitation to destroy the second woman's relationship. Evidently, it does not matter that she doesn’t know anything about the perceived man other than the fact that he has money. Any morals she might have are subordinate to her primal female jealousy. She definitely can’t be thinking about anything of importance in public when her mind is consumed by competing for a mate.
The weak link lies in how the study was conducted. It is one thing to come up with uncomfortable findings about women’s behaviour, but it's another thing to employ obvious presumptuousness and sexism to make the "discovery." The university website details that study participants were “made to feel jealous” by imagining that another woman was flirting with her man. Then, in an apparently unrelated task, they drew a luxury brand logo onto a handbag. The conclusion was that when women felt jealous, they drew designer logos that were double the size of the others.
"The feeling that a relationship is being threatened by another woman automatically triggers women to want to flash Gucci, Chanel, and Fendi to other women," explains Wang. "A designer handbag or a pair of expensive shoes seems to work like a shield, where wielding a Fendi handbag successfully fends off romantic rivals."
The fact that the size of a designer logo drawing by the study participants was considered enough to draw mass conclusions about women’s competency and collective behaviour reveals a huge problem. Nowhere in the study was a sense of competition for other women’s male partners clearly proven or even indicated, which shows that the findings were heavily influenced by preexisting stereotypes that affected how the results were interpreted. While the study itself may seem trivial, it is “facts” and “revelations” such as these that tighten negative gender stereotypes.
The study reinforces a persona that women can’t seem to escape. To make matters worse, students are being taught about gender-specific consumer behavior based on university research such as this. Professor Vladas Griskevicius stated that, “Conspicuous consumption is smart for women who want to protect their relationship.”
That pseudo advice is not what women in university, or anywhere, should have to hear.