Here’s a study that will fuel thorny discussions about female-to-female working relationships in the office: As reported by the ABA Journal (link to article by Debra Cassens Weiss, here), “(w)hen Chicago-Kent law professor Felice Batlan surveyed 142 legal secretaries at larger law firms in 2009, not one expressed a preference for working with a female partner.” Ninety-five percent of the online survey respondents self-identified as female.
Here are some of the comments left by survey respondents:
• “Females are harder on their female assistants, more detail oriented, and they have to try harder to prove themselves, so they put that on you. And they are passive aggressive where a guy will just tell you the task and not get emotionally involved and make it personal.”
• “I just feel that men are a little more flexible and less emotional than women. This could be because the female partners feel more pressure to perform.”
• “Female attorneys have a tendency to downgrade a legal secretary.”
• “I am a female legal secretary, but I avoid working for women because [they are] such a pain in the ass! They are too emotional and demeaning.”
• “Female attorneys are either mean because they’re trying to be like their male counterparts or too nice/too emotional because they can’t handle the stress. Either way, their attitude/lack of maturity somehow involves you being a punching bag.”
• Women lawyers have “an air about them.”
Professor Batlan interpreted the results for the ABA Journal:
Batlan wondered if legal secretaries’ attitudes toward women lawyers is influenced by societal expectations. “For a woman to serve a man is an arrangement that conforms to and reproduces dominant and traditional, although contested and changing, gender arrangements,” she writes. “Gender structures tell men that they are entitled to women’s help and that women are supposed to freely give it.”
Other possible reasons: Men still have the power in law firms, and legal secretaries want to work for those in power. Or women lawyers may be more abrupt because of tensions created by conflicts between work and family. Or female lawyers may perceive that the secretaries are willing to do more work for male than women bosses, creating frictions.
Can female-to-female workplace bullying research shed some light?
From my anecdotal observations, even today female attorneys are indeed put between a rock and a hard place. A profession grounded in very stereotypically male behavior expects lawyers to be sharp-edged advocates. However, women perceived as being “strong” are more likely to be judged harshly, while those perceived as being “nice” are more likely to be judged as “weak.”
The Batlan study also resonates with research being done on female-to-female workplace bullying. I’m copying into this post a portion of a previous piece that I wrote in April, “Female-to-female workplace bullying: Homespun theory on an imperfect storm.” I believe it’s very relevant to this topic:
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.