Among the many aspects of workplace bullying worthy of examination, female-to-female aggression seems to push the hardest buttons when raised in everyday discussions, in person or online.
Some of the angriest and most anguished comments come from female targets. Newspaper articles and blog posts (such as here) about female-to-female bullying prove quite popular among readers and trigger impassioned exchanges.
I often have wondered, what is it about female-to-female bullying that arouses such deep feelings? Why have so many women told me that they will “never again work for another woman”? Thanks in part to a research study presented at the annual conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) last week, I now have a homespun theory for why this is so.
I apologize for this long post, but the topic is complex and multifaceted, and I won’t even pretend that this is the last word on it.
“She Gossips, He Shouts”
In their study titled above, Lauren Zurbrügg (Texas A&M U.), Kathi Miner-Rubino (Texas A&M U.), and Anthony Paquin (Western Kentucky U.) examined “gender differences in perceptions of workplace incivility,” based on a nationwide sample of working adults. Here are two of their most interesting findings:
- Men and women may, at least in the aggregate, “utilize different types of behaviors when they behave uncivilly.” Men are more likely to engage in direct behaviors, such raising their voices, swearing, and overt harassment. Women are more likely to engage in indirect behaviors, especially “backstabbing.”
- Women are more likely than men to perceive certain behaviors as uncivil.
In addition, their summary of representative statements from respondents characterizing identical uncivil behaviors by men and women suggests that female perpetrators are judged more harshly than their male counterparts.
A 2009 piece in the Toronto-based Globe and Mail on female bullies at work (link here) quotes other knowledgeable individuals offering similar conclusions:
But female bullies can be subtle and craftier than their male counterparts, says Marilyn Noble, who researches workplace bullying at the University of New Brunswick.
“Women tend to use relational aggression. It’s verbal, psychological, emotional bullying. People don’t recognize it – it’s covert, it’s harder to pin down and to prove,” she says.
There’s also a lot of reputation smearing, and female bullies often manipulate others into joining them, says Diane Rodgers, co-ordinator for the Bully Within, a B.C. group of professionals who have organized to fight workplace bullying.
An imperfect storm
So why does female-to-female bullying get such attention? And why does this aggressor-target combination appear to exact such a high price from those on the receiving end? Here is how I connect the dots, based on the observations above and my own surmise:
First, if women tend to bully more indirectly, they will be regarded more negatively. In our culture, we regard covert and indirect attacks as more devious than overt and direct attacks. In some ways, they are more frightening to us.
Think in military terms: “Sneak attacks” are always considered more treacherous and “cowardly,” sometimes associated with “unmanliness.” Direct attacks are considered more “honorable,” even when less effective.
Thus, when women bully in ways consistent with statistical indications, their actions will be judged more harshly than those who bully directly.
Second, if women perceive incivility more readily than do men, then they are more likely to recognize and struggle with indirect or covert behaviors that some men may never even notice. It means that women will suffer more due to bullying behaviors.
Third, generally speaking, women are judged more harshly than men in the workplace. A male manager may be regarded as “tough,” while a female manager may be called a “b—h” for acting in the same manner.
Fourth, it’s quite possible that, especially in professional workplaces, female subordinates enter an organization half-expecting female supervisors to be more supportive and mentoring, rather than hostile and undermining. When they experience incivility at the hands of these individuals, their sense of betrayal is more palpable.
Finally, if female bullies are more adept at enlisting others to join in on the mistreatment, this may give rise to more mobbing-type behaviors.
Adding it up
These factors coalesce into an imperfect storm, whereby women who have been treated poorly or even abusively at work by other women are more likely to perceive the behaviors in very negative and hurtful ways. It may help to explain, for example, why female-dominated professions such as nursing have cultures of incivility — “nurses eat their young” is a well-known quip — grounded in characterizations of “catty” aggression.
This also means that women have to be more self-aware of their behaviors than do men, on average. It is unfair that women who mistreat others may be judged more severely than men who act in the same way, but that is an enduring reality.
An important reminder
Folks, notwithstanding the above, let’s keep in mind that prevalence studies indicate that men are more likely to bully others at work. For example, the 2010 national public opinion survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute in partnership with Zogby International pollsters (link here) indicated that some 62 percent of aggressors at work were male. So…behavior by males counts for a considerable majority of bullying situations.
I’m devoting several posts this week to responses and ideas sparked by papers presented at a panel on April 15 as part of SIOP’s annual conference in Chicago. The panel, which centered on research approaches to understanding incivility, was organized by doctoral student Benjamin Walsh and Professor Vicki Magley of the University of Connecticut’s industrial/organizational psychology program.
I was privileged to serve as the discussant on the panel, offering comments on each of the papers. It is exciting to see graduate students and professors examining these aspects of work and workplaces via their research studies and dissertations.
Hat tip to eBossWatch for the Globe and Mail article.