Female-to-female workplace bullying: Homespun theory on an imperfect storm

[Editor’s Note: This is a complete reprint of an article from April 20, 2011, along with comments left by readers. I had to remove the original page because of a technical glitch, but because this post continues to be popular on this blog, I wanted to ensure that it remained available to future readers.]

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.

There’s agreement

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:

Treachery

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.

Perceptions

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.

Double standard

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.

Expectations

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.

Mobbing

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.

***

RESPONSES

    1. Mary says:

      April 20, 2011 at 2:12 am

      I’ve had two male bosses and both of them were good at their jobs and mentoring and respectful to their people.  I’ve had a total of 4 female bosses and only 1 of them didn’t bully me and/or others or protect significant bullies in the workplace.

      My experience has never been that of yelling and overtly abusive behavior.  It has been subtle undermining of my self-esteem.  It was not possible for them to touch my performance record — but there was a lot of behind the back tearing down — and perhaps even lying.  It was never done so that I could deal with it directly.  And, no doubt, was happening long before I figured it out.

      Every single one of these people has continued to outwardly succeed in their jobs to include drawing very high pay for being the reason that companies have lost excellent employees.

      I knew one bully (my co-worker) who was the reason that TWO of our managers left the company.  And — they were good, knowledgeable managers.

      What IS that??  I will never get it.

      (I have worked my whole career, 30 years, in Human Resources).

       

    1. Rebecca Hernandez says:

      April 20, 2011 at 9:47 am
       
      This article is so true.  In my case after 25 years with the department and excellent evaluations, they promoted a female in which I had trained.  Yet, we were co-workers and never established a friendship.  When I went through four depositions prior to my trial, the Attorney General kept questioning me about being jealous about not being promoted.  I had to keep repeating that I did not want to promote and did not take the promotional exam.  After I filed an EEOC complaint against her, management back dated a request for an investigation by Internal Affairs and told EEOC that I only filed because I was under investigation.  In her request for investigation, she accused me of theft, having affairs, taking kick backs from vendors.  No charges could be founded because they did not happen.  After, the Jury came back with their verdict of guilt against the department and her.  She told the Sacramento Bee that people just need to move on.
      Reply

        • Deana Pollard Sacks says:

          January 10, 2013 at 2:26 pm

          I just read your story, and I would like to commend you for taking action. It is very difficult to pursue a legal remedy through appropriate channels when defense counsel often resort to “attack the plaintiff” (and lie about her) tactics instead of finding out what really happened. It takes guts to pursue a lawsuit, and the bullying often gets worse as a result. I am glad you won your trial.

           

            • Kachina says:

              January 11, 2013 at 4:53 pm
               
              It takes more than guts. It takes financial resources, more personal support than a lot of people have, legal grounds and evidence (and we know that most bullying is mostly legal in most North American jurisdictions). Even when all of those factors are present, there is no guarantee of a “win”…and the appeal process to contend with if successful…no wonder so few cases hit the courts.
    1. David Yamada says:

      April 20, 2011 at 9:47 pm

      Mary and Rebecca, thanks for sharing your own experiences here. This topic is a dicey one — as a man I’ve hesitated to write about it, wondering if somehow I’m crossing into territory best left for women to discuss. But I’ve heard too many stories like yours that affirm what these studies and experts are saying.

      • elayne Alanis says:

        May 3, 2011 at 1:02 pm

        Hi Dr. Yamada,

        This female-female bullying is exactly what is happening and continues to happen to my client…a case you are well aware of as you work with her sister. The extent of their daily mean spirited actions continues to amaze me. All i can liken it to is the harassment leveled at poor Pheobe Prince. Don’t get me wrong…the men there are bad but the women are conniving, scheming, heartless co-workers bent on forcing the target out of the organization. It really is an outrage and no-one will step up and help due to pending litigation. So sad!

        • David Yamada says:

          May 3, 2011 at 1:59 pm

          Elayne, being familiar with your client’s situation, I can only agree wholeheartedly with your points. It’s a horrible situation and I hope she (and they) get the justice each deserves.  David

           

    1. Mary says:

      April 20, 2011 at 10:27 pm

      Actually, I would just make one other point.  I’m not so convinced that the majority of bullying is perpetrated by men.

      I would be more inclined to think (without scientific analysis, or course) that women bullies are much more prevalent — it’s just that the mode of delivery is more insidious and not really named adequately by all of the victims.

    1. Cecilia Sepp says:

      April 21, 2011 at 6:09 pm

      I find no “a-ha” moments in this posting, or in the research referenced. This behavior in the workplace merely reflects how women are expected to behave in society, and men’s perception of them.

      There is a double standard, and women have not yet found their backbone to stand up as humans rather than “women.”

      As long as women continue to accept this marginalization, abdicate their responsibility, and continue to act like 6th graders at the office, this will continue to happen.

      Why do women act like 6th graders? Because professionally, most women have not matured emotionally. They refuse to understand that acting like a competent professional does not mean you are acting like a man. It means you are acting like a competent professional. Period.

      Women are taught to be submissive, quiet, and “seen but not heard.” You wonder why female bullies resort to subterfuge? It’s because they are taught to act that way.

      Until men and women create a partnership to treat each other as equals with an equal expectation of performance and behavior as grown ups, men will continue to find women’s behavior “fascinating” simply because they don’t act like men.

      I’ve known more “subterfuge bully” men than women in my career, and it comes back to the same issue: emotional immaturity and lack of self-esteem.

      I have managed both men and women. When it came down to promotions or employment terminations, it had nothing to do with if they were acting like a man or acting like a woman. It had everything to do with performance. Everyone was held to the same standard.

    1. anonymous says:

      April 26, 2011 at 2:05 pm

      I agree with and like “I would be more inclined to think (without scientific analysis, or course) that women bullies are much more prevalent — it’s just that the mode of delivery is more insidious and not really named adequately by all of the victims.” noted above. I’ve had several different jobs in my career of 15 years thus far, and in these years, have been bullied by women far more frequently than men.

    1. Kathy says:

      April 29, 2011 at 5:31 pm

      I think it isn’t just a perception thing. Women bullies can hurt you more BECAUSE of the convert nature of their attacks. He screams in your face and everyone around can see that He’s the jerk in the situation. She talks behind your back and turns your co-workers against you – MUCH more damaging in the end.  Of course if she screamed in your face she would be accused of being overly emotional, or of having PMS.

    1.  Lisa says:

      May 2, 2011 at 9:55 am

      @Cecelia: I suspect that one of the problems in getting “women to stand up as humans,” as you put it, is the impact of the double standard itself. Women who work in cultures that have not studiously rooted out the double standard find themselves punished for behaviors that are rewarded when men perform them. Examples: men who negotiate for a raise are assertive, women who do the same are rhymes-with-witches. Men who interrupt at a meeting are brimming with innovation and authority; women are catty and impolite.

      One doesn’t have to get the proverbial smack-down too many times before one learns what path one may tread safely and keep one’s job, even if that path is the one that plays into the worst stereotypes.

       

 A.    NCM says:
February 23, 2012 at 4:48 pm

 

I really have a hard time believing that men bully more than women. In all my years working (42), mainly for male bosses, I have NEVER been bullied by a male. I’ve had some that weren’t the greatest managers, but that’s it…  Men it seems, get mad about things, and get to the point. Women on the other hand, totally different story, I’ve had 2 female managers/supervisors and BOTH were bullies to the hilt.  Unfortunately, guys just don’t see it because it’s so nasty and covert. I’ve never been able to figure it out??  I even had one who was training me to be her “backup” and she was still poisoning the well on a daily basis. GO FIGURE?  Made no sense to me..  Plus, what is the worst about female bullying is, they don’t seem to need a GOOD reason to bully, just the fact that you’re a woman seems to bring it out. Both of my bad female managers went OUT of their way to undermine and kill self esteem and I just don’t get it… It’s no understatement to say I WOULD NEVER WORK FOR A WOMAN AGAIN EVER.

A.  Mary says:

February 23, 2012 at 6:00 pm

I’ve come to the conclusion that a couple of things are at play.  I realize I’m generalizing, but:  (1)  Men are task oriented and women are relationship oriented.  Men come to work to actually work.  (2)  Women who rise to the management level are PERHAPS pretty insecure and have to revert to what worked for them in junior high school. So, task orientation takes a backseat to making someone else look bad so that they’ll look better.

Additionally, If this woman happens to be great looking the men who could affect change are reluctant to do so just because they are so visually oriented.

A.annonymous says:

May 8, 2013 at 6:12 pm

My female boss I’ve noticed been bullied and it’s always by women. The most recent was,  my boss was asked to give a resource for a project, we didn’t have a resource available to work on it. my boss spent a good while explaining to 2 people why we didn’t. These two then tried to undermine my boss and go to her boss to persuade him to force my boss to give a resource. They then invited her to a meeting to discuss the project. She was worried that she’d be manipulated and bullied in the meeting and went over to talk to the female manager of the project team before the meeting to discuss again why we had no resource. My boss came back from this chat looking very stressed and worried. She has been bullied in the past to do what others want and she struggles against strong personalities. She then a short while later had to go to the meeting in which they had a continguency plan and a resource wasn’t needed. I think the way the whole thing was a total disregard for my boss her authority and her condition as she is heavily pregnant. If they had got their way, it would have stripped away at my bosses authority and leave her open to further bullying.

5 responses

  1. Yes, there is definitely a problem with women-on-women bullying and it is difficult to address because much of it is underhanded. The three women who bullied me let me know they hated dealing with women. In hindsight, I may have been able to claim gender discrimination but that would be hard to prove since the perpetrators were in the same protected class.

    Based on my limited observation and experience, I saw a few factors going on with the female bullies where I worked. Two of them were very attractive and any complaints about them to male management fell on deaf ears. In fact, one of them was known to have affairs with department directors (two of these affairs came out in court). Of course this insulated her from consequences for her malfeasance and mistreatment of other staff. I believe she and the younger bully she mentored had no use for other females as they weren’t as easily manipulated as men. They actually blamed other women’s “jealousy” of them as the reason for conflict. The bullying tactics used by those two were covert and included defaming the target to other staff, excluding and ignoring the target, sabotaging the target’s work, coming up with bogus reasons to deny the target resources and taking away their responsibilities, etc. Never would they confront a target and if confronted, they would gaslight.

    The third bully was unlike the other two and was both overt and covert in the tactics she used. As well as the aforementioned covert tactics, she would blatantly yell at, make fun of, and seek to humiliate targets in front of people. Her abuse was easy to prove as there were witnesses! She was told to tone it down which she did publicly. But when no one was looking, she would tear into a target and then turn it around, claiming the target was abusing her. She was looking for an angry reaction, which she never got from me so of course had to lie. She bullied I believe, because it was part of her personality and because she was egged on by the covert bully manager to do so.

    From my experience, the men in charge who could do something about the bullying didn’t want to get involved in conflicts between women and if they did, automatically it was the higher ranking female who was in the right. So along with the female perpetrators, they do share some of the blame here.

  2. I don’t believe that fewer women are bullies as compared to men. I think it’s just easier to see loud abusive behavior as compared to clever manipulative psychological warfare.

    Let’s not let women off the hook for cultural reasons. Men bludgeon and women stab. In the end, the goal is the same – to destroy a person.

  3. I do see one female manager at work. Not only has she been bullied by her female management colleagues but also by women on her team.these bulliyes make her look weak and try and leave her powerless. I have seen females intimidate and undermine her on many occassions. They know she is afraid of them and that she is too afriad to stand up to them

  4. i have seen one lady been targeted a few times and the ease of how some female bullies intimidate her is shocking. one time she had to collect files from another office and she went with another lady. she told me they were heavy. later that evening another manager came buy and asked did she collect the files. she said yes and that they were very heavy too had to collect them. the other lady then stands up and calls her manager a wimp as she was too weak too carry them. they manager said she did carry them but the lady in question made her look even weaker by saying she only carried them out of the office door. she managed to humiliate the manager in front of her own team and management peers. it looked so cruel to see someone made seem so weak and open up the danger others might think she is a wuss that they can bully too

  5. I am a friendly, generally constructive person who is involved in two activist groups. I consider myself a feminist and have read pretty widely on the subject. However, in each group women compete with me constantly even though I never bother to do the same with them. At meetings they bully me both directly and passive aggressively. They will cut me off and dismiss my input. If I am taking minutes, they will say things like “did you get everything [someone] just said?” Later I receive emails instructing me to do things. “You should do this” and “You should do that.” (This is all volunteer on my part.) The men in the groups are significantly less like this. Most of the men, who range in age, are knowlegable about women’s’ issues. The psychological state of the women makes me sad and very frustrated. I try my best to ignore it but I need to get my points across as much as any other member of the group. I have stuck it out because we are accomplishing things. And every week I leave meetings feeling really frustrated.

    I have experienced this with bosses also. My former boss sabotaged meetings I facilitated by repeatedly interrupting me with trivial critical comments. It got so bad other people who worked there noticed and began retaliating on my behalf with their own passive aggressive behavior directed at her during meetings. (What a train wreck that job was…) I was a contractor while she worked for the government, so there was no chance I threatened her job.

    I had three female bosses in a row who would belittle everything I did. I still feel weird about using them as references, even though the consulting firm I worked for each time was happy with my work — contracts were extended, I received letters of commendation, etc.

    At one job, one woman who was not my boss would interrupt everything I did as if she was my boss and disrupt me. Over and over I would professionally tell her I was busy and could we set a time for what she wanted to talk to me about. She would touch me, placing her hands on my shoulders from behind (eww) and sometimes cram herself sort of between me and my computer while she talked on and on. One day, in front of the entire office, I finally just abruptly backed up my chair, jamming it right into her in a very obnoxious manner. That took care of the situation. Who wants to live like this? Not me.

    I hate to say this — but I would much rather work with men. This is coming from someone who has read a lot of feminist books. In America, most women will not recognise talent in other women they work with. We are socialized this way [i.e. read brainwashed and scared]. So we have little understanding of why we act so pushy, ugly and bitter. Our resentful behavior merely generates more bitterness and anger in other women. it’s horrible.

    You can either view it as there is not enough power to go around for women; or that this entire “power over others” culture is mentall ill. That’s my take on it.

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