Women Are Bullying Other Women On the Job

2009 September 16

Stress causes irrationality, frustration and sometimes, our demons get the best of us. Remember that bully on the playground at recess who would ruin the rest of your afternoon because they called you a mean name, stuck their tongue out or stole your lunch. Transfer that bully 15 years later to the office. Ouch.

The Workplace Bullying Institute (yes, it really exists) says that 37% of workers have been bullied. It further indicates that although it’s mostly men who are bullies, a good 40% of the bullies are women. The approach male bullies take is a “egalitarian, mowing down men and women pretty much in equal measure. The women appear to prefer their own kind, choosing other women as targets more than 70% of the time.”

bullying

An article in the New York Times reinforces the backlash this is causing, so is it naive to think women should be able to rely on each other and stick together? Women treating other women badly affects not only our morale, but how can women break through the glass ceiling if they’re avoiding verbal and emotional assaults from other women at work?

Why Women Choose Other Women as Targets

One suspect reason “is probably some idea that they can find a less confrontative person or someone less likely to respond to aggression with aggression,” said Gary Namie, research director for the Workplace Bullying Institute, which ordered the study in 2007. Another finding showed that women may sabotage one another because they feel that helping their female co-workers could jeopardize their own careers.

Let me interject by saying women have strived for equality for five decades. Women make up 50% of management, professional and related occupations according to Catalyst, a nonprofit research group. Nonetheless, Catalyst’s census last year found only 15.7% of Fortune 500 officers and 15.2% of directors were women. Hard to argue with the facts.

Research on gender stereotyping from Catalyst suggests that no matter how women choose to lead, they are perceived as “never just right.” In addition, women must work twice as hard as men to achieve the same level of recognition and prove they can lead.

As women we feel we have to be aggressive to be promoted. Then once they are promoted the need to be a nurturer, collaborative and in touch with our emotions step in. Unfortunately, I think a lot of women constantly struggle with a gender balance in the workplace, which is where some of the confusion and need to bully might arise.

Is Bullying Necessary to Get Ahead?

In order to get ahead women do not need to bully their co-workers by withholding information such as promotions.

I firmly believe there is no need for bullying. There are many women who didn’t need to step all over people to get to the top. They weren’t passive, but they weren’t bullying asses. I encourage women to work for a common cause. Stop trying to be something you’re not and remember to be true to yourself while exercising both masculine and feminine qualities as you find a balance.  A company that really respects their employees won’t care about the gender differences and will hire the right person for the position, regardless of gender.

Have you ever been bullied at work? If so, how did it affect your work?

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  • http://ryanstephensmarketing.com/blog/ ryanstephens

    If women would just stay home and cook and clean we wouldn't have problems like this…

    :)

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Ryan Ha! VERY FUNNY 😉

    I still wonder the root cause for why women bully each other…they may do it in their own kitchens if they stayed at home to clean and cook all day anyway!

  • http://ryanstephensmarketing.com/blog/ ryanstephens

    I'll say this and open the door for criticism/conversation. I will preface this discussion with the fact that I've been in the “real world,” for a very short amount of time.

    Some women, by nature, are very 'catty.' This dates back to like 6th grade. She's my friend, I hate her, she's a slut, etc. The fact that women, by nature are typically more emotional, can be a great asset. BUT some of the women I've been involved with on projects get emotional and incapable of working with you after disagreements, constructive criticism, etc. Men seem to be quicker to get over things.

    As one VP I know in a large company said, it's unfortunate, “but I have to talk to women on my team differently than men because they typically get sensitive about things instead of just acknowledging it, being upset for a bit, and moving on.”

    Is this true of ALL women? NOT AT ALL. But is it possible that women interpret bullying different than men? Is it possible that what can be a great asset (nurturer, etc.) sometimes translates to a weakness?

    I'd have liked to crafted this better, but I'm at work so …

  • Anita Lobo

    Ha! Good choice of topic and post Grace. I completely relate to Ryan's comment about many women getting over-sensitive and stilted particularly after a frank conversation. From the perspective of an employer/ business head, have faced this countless times :( and it took lots of coaching to get women managers to handle feedback well.

    Women are culturally 'allowed' to display emotion while men are trained to hide them – we under estimate the continued effect of this gender stereotyping at work.

    As a woman boss, however, its a tough line: If you set aggressive targets, you're criticised as unfairly demanding. If you're sweet & courteous all the time, people assume you're soft! In other words a 'female boss' must be tolerated!

    Don't get me wrong, its not always this way. But 50% of the time people judge you with their own pre-conceived notions and its nothing to do with how you conduct yourself, as a peer or the boss.

    The other thought is: if the organisational culture allows bullying, then women and men emulate that behaviour to get ahead. The more competitive an environment is, the lesser number of women [esp in traditionally male-dominated sectors], the meaner the bullying.

    School yard tactics of tackling bullies are effective at work places too :)

    Women and men just need to know when to blow the whistle and involve peers/managers/ HR in sorting the matter out.

    Cheers

    Anita Lobo

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Anita You bring up some great points, especially with your personal perspective and background. The thing is, our brains are different then men and that doesn't make it “wrong.” Men react with anger and rage where women might cry, just like the post I wrote on women and emotions in the workplace.

    I think there are ways that women can rein in their emotions and same with males. Our sensitive intuitive nature helps us in business situations while some men might lack finesse. It really can go both ways and ultimately, I think that understanding how women and men work on the job can be beneficial for HR and also for co-workers to co-exist. Thanks so much for sharing, Anita!

  • http://restlesslikeme.com Norcross

    I see it quite often, having been in a large corporate setting for 10 years now. And being one who isn't emotional much at all (sometimes to a fault), I can't grasp why it appears that women are so hyper-critical with each other. The only thing I can point to is that perhaps women are instilled with this mentality at a young age (as Ryan alludes to) and it's their way of competing.

    There is a woman in my office who it horrible. Bully doesn't even begin to describe it, I've come to refer to it as 'bulldogging' others. It may be how she got to her position, or maybe perhaps she's just a miserable human being. But like any other bully, don't let them intimidate you, and they go away.

    And on a side note, the “…it's mostly men, but 40% are women” statement is somewhat contradictory. A 60% / 40% split isn't much of a majority at all.

  • danbobinski

    Grace – good topic.

    To add a bit to the conversation, like the VP Ryan mentioned, I have seen many more women than men become whacky when they “interpret” a comment / read between the lines (incorrectly). It's like they place themselves in a victim role and use it as an excuse to bully. Their comments are along the lines of “When she said “x” she meant “y!”

    My wife and most of my women friends tell me they don't like working for female bosses because of how catty and bullying they can be.

    BTW — in addition to the Workplace Bullying Institute, Laura Crawshaw, Ph.D. has a great book entitled “Taming the Abrasive Manager.” (see more at http://www.executiveinsight.com/)

    I'd like to talk more about your observations about the percentages of women in Mgmt and Leadership, but perhaps another time ….

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Norcross Women do nitpick. I've found especially with my fellow women co-workers (that I'm friends with as well) that it's better to find a sense of comradery instead of bullying. It's not conducive to good work and when a bully arises, I think it's important to step in and can also reflect poor management if nothing is done at all. Of course, your personality isn't always indicative of your success but…it still says something.

    I see your point on the 60/40 split. It is more men than women, which is the point the Workplace Bullying Institute was making but it's not like a 90/10 split. Thanks for your thoughts and perspective, Andrew!

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Dan Thanks for stopping by and passing along, “Taming the Abrasive Manager,” I'm interested to check it out.

    A previous post on women and their emotions in the workplace (http://smallhandsbigideas.com/career/women-and-…) talks just about how our emotions are swayed and how women treat their emotions.

    As to the percentages about women in Mgmt. I know there are a lot of statistics available. It was mostly based on fact, not observation, from a study last year via Catalyst group. I am not sure which side of the fence you are on but I have a mother who is an entrepreneur and my upper management vision of being a Director or Founder is still real and tangible to me, even if the numbers might show something smaller.

    Either way, I welcome your knowledge and experience on the matter. Please feel free to e-mail me directly: gracekboyle at gmail dot com or continue the conversation here. Thank you again, Dan.

  • http://www.opheliaswebb.com Elisa Doucette

    Grace, your insight into gender issues while still recognizing the scientitic and physical differences warms my little analytical heart. Really, I'm not even being a sarcastic bullying be-yotch. 😛

    Thus based on these things (and pulling in a bit of sociological detail) here's my take on why women bully each other more. Women are hardwired to make connections between everything…the membrane connecting the two sides of the brain is thicker in the female gender than the male. Due to either more science that I don't know or the cultural environment we live in, women often translate that connection to human connections. We base our worth on WHO we are and HOW we are doing things. We make our work about ourselves. Thus, when we feel threatened/ambitious/competitive/etc we make it personal.

    Men, they have thinner membranes. They function more in the WHAT and have a very A+B=C oriented worth. There is less bullying because they focus on the results and the process, and only brag and accept praise when they have an accomplishment. There seems to be less bullying because it isn't about the person doing it so much as the IT. And how to do you bully a process really.

    Thus is my completely Discovery-channel influenced take. :)

  • Dunki

    Great Post, Grace!! My thoughts: there is a difference between being bullied and not being able to take criticism. I'm the type who wears her heart on her sleeve, but when I was criticized for a bad job I didn't cry about it (at least not at the office) and took it. especially because it was deserved (ahhh..a story for another time). But when a co-worker laid into me for no apparent reason, i let her have it. I wasn't about to let her treat me in a way that wasn't professional. I agree with Ryan, the attitude starts early and never goes away, unfortunately. However some people do need to learn how to take constructive criticism.

  • http://www.owlsparks.com/ Carlos Miceli

    We have institutes for anything nowadays 😛

    Kidding aside, I think Ryan, Anita and Andrew are right. I work in a huge corp. and to be honest this is no news to me. I'm sure most of us see this quite often.

    I have never bullied, but I've been bullied though, and as usual, ignoring mediocrity is the best choice.

    That's the thing about mediocre people. They beat instead of uniting, they tharsh instead of helping, they trump instead of recognizing.

    The sad thing is, that mediocre bosses like that. That's why sometimes works.

    Everyday I realize that balls and characther are a must to survive and thrive in a big corporation.

    Great post Grace, one of your bests.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Elisa I like that you dove deep to the membranes in our brain, because ultimately that is where action and reaction start. As a woman I am very much a connector so it makes a lot of sense. I like your Discovery-channel take, a lot :)

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Dunki Great point–>bullying and taking criticism. However, don't you think that it varies for each individual. I often remind my (sensitive) friend that business doesn't have to be or shouldn't be touchy-feely. Yes, she's a woman and sometimes she's offended or hurt by an aggressive male counterpart. I try to tell her that they're not bullying (especially if it's a woman) and that it's important to take pressure and criticism positively.

    I'm glad you also stood up for yourself, because that shows you take initiative and are not a pushover as well.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Carlos Mediocre, I might go so far as to say rudimentary or lackluster. If people need to step on others and bully, instead of uniting it's just sad and in the end, not helpful. You bring up a good point that bosses need to also step in and now allow this to happen…or to do it themselves. Thanks for the kudos, Carlos. Always means a lot :)

  • http://www.theartofawkward.com/ elaineellis

    I worked in an almost entirely all women workforce for more than four years. I'll never do it again. Bullying seems like such a strong word but when you get to the root of what was happening, it was bullying.

    For my last workforce, I think the root of the problem is that the feedback was so personal. Workforce feedback should be given professionally and without an emotional stake in it. But feedback was given in such a personal (and demeaning way) that it often felt as a kick in the shins rather than as an opportunity to grow. Frankly, a lot of it was catty. To this day, my former co-workers dread reviews at their new jobs even though we've since learned not all feedback is bad feedback.

    But with that being said about never working in a nearly all women office again, I think a nearly entire male would have its own share of downsides.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Elaine You bring a really interesting perspective because you have worked with mostly all women for so long. Women often take feedback to another level where they can go personal and to an emotional level. I know just how that is and I think that work is work and personal is personal. Although the line is blurred, it should try to stay in their own category especially for reviews.

    At Lijit where its largely men (probably 90/10) men to women I haven't felt the downsides…yet. I work with some amazing women 😉 so it makes it better, but I appreciate men's ability to separate their emotions and also create a positive working environment without all the bullshit that seems to creep in.

  • http://twitter.com/MarketersVA Kate LaFrance

    I once worked at a small publishing firm where 49 out of the 50 employees were women. The woman who was supervising my group of about 10 employees was an extreme bully that I am sure had emotional/mental problems. The owners of the company used that to their advantage and encouraged her behavior – until it suited them to fire her. Working in that environment was horrible for me – the owners “liked” me so she singled me out – I had numerous health problems and recall losing my hair (which she openly and loudly mocked) – nice.

  • http://fiwk.blogspot.com/ Royce Hadden

    Reading through the articles you link, there appears to be some crossover between what they define is “bullying” and what I'd call “being an asshole”. To me, workplace bullying seems more like trying to get your way with something – either to make yourself look better, to get something that helps you/your project, to put down a competitor, etc. Just being a dick in general is more like being catty or causing drama out of spite or your own personal grumpiness. Does this make sense?

    Anyway I typically find the best approach with this kind of thing is just to put your head down and work your ass, and then be supremely confident in your abilities in your accomplishments. If you can vocalize your value in real terms then no one can tell you different.

  • http://fiwk.blogspot.com/ Royce Hadden

    By the way the photo you found for this topic is hysterical. Shame on you girl to the right! Phenomenal

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Kate Wow, what a story. I'm sorry to hear about the emotional and mental problems. Companies can and should realize the repercussions involved here and I think the best companies also realize they should take care of their employees. Thanks for stopping by. I hope to hear that you're working at a much more supported company.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Royce Ha! I know. I almost put in a picture from Mean Girls but decided on this cheesy one 😉 Whatever 'name' we want to call it, bullying for no reason and then giving constructive criticism or being firm is so different. Just like you say, if you're also doing it to make you feel better it's such a low blow and I think in the end, it catches up to you.

  • http://fiwk.blogspot.com/ Royce Hadden

    Reading through the articles you link, there appears to be some crossover between what they define is “bullying” and what I'd call “being an asshole”. To me, workplace bullying seems more like trying to get your way with something – either to make yourself look better, to get something that helps you/your project, to put down a competitor, etc. Just being a dick in general is more like being catty or causing drama out of spite or your own personal grumpiness. Does this make sense?

    Anyway I typically find the best approach with this kind of thing is just to put your head down and work your ass, and then be supremely confident in your abilities in your accomplishments. If you can vocalize your value in real terms then no one can tell you different.

  • http://fiwk.blogspot.com/ Royce Hadden

    By the way the photo you found for this topic is hysterical. Shame on you girl to the right! Phenomenal

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Kate Wow, what a story. I'm sorry to hear about the emotional and mental problems. Companies can and should realize the repercussions involved here and I think the best companies also realize they should take care of their employees. Thanks for stopping by. I hope to hear that you're working at a much more supported company.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Royce Ha! I know. I almost put in a picture from Mean Girls but decided on this cheesy one 😉 Whatever 'name' we want to call it, bullying for no reason and then giving constructive criticism or being firm is so different. Just like you say, if you're also doing it to make you feel better it's such a low blow and I think in the end, it catches up to you.

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  • http://www.habitformingsuccess.blogspot.com Angela C.

    One thing I have noticed lately and it continues to shock me that grown women treat each other like this, is a more passive kind of bullying, or rather a bonding together of some coworkers to the exclusion of another. It reminds me of the drama I dealt with in Junior High and as a newbie to this particular work environment surprises me to see grown women treating each other this way.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.com Grace Boyle

    Angela you are very right. It is juvenile but unfortunately, it’s so common :/ Thanks for sharing and hopefully, we keep spreading the goodness!