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Women Bullying Women in the Workplace-We Can and Must Do Better

by Ellen Fink-Samnick MSW, ACSW, LCSW, CCM, CRP on 04/07/18

Compelling numbers have emerged across the workforce. These span every business sector, profession, and setting. While I often write about the manifestation of disrupters like workplace bullying across the health and behavioral care industry, I opted to go global this go round. Nurses have the traditional reputation of 'eating their young', but the issue of women bullying women in the workplace is universal in scope, with attention mandated:

·       Female bullies most often target other women, up to 80% of the time (Workplace Bullying Institute, 2017)

·       Women who report to female supervisors experience more frequent symptoms of physical and psychological stress than those who work for males, and

·       95% of women believe they were undermined by another woman in the workplace (Drexler, 2013)

·       Women prefer to work for male bosses as opposed to females who may be viewed as ‘emotional’, ‘catty’, or ‘bitchy’ (Khazan, 2017)

 

Whether known as ‘mean girls’, ‘queen bees’, or ‘bitches’, these women are bullies. They reap pleasure at terrorizing their female colleagues through behaviors that span a continuum from aggressive to indifferent:

·       Yelling at, minimizing, and devaluing staff in public meetings.

·       Promising time off, then rescinding the request last minute without cause.

·       Singling out specific individuals through unfair treatment, such as rejecting time off,  delaying approvals until last minute.

·       Giving unequal and/or more demanding work assignments.

·       Being dismissive, curt, and disrespectful, intentionally and consistently.

·       Using crude language to evoke a response. 

·       Deliberately undermining and sabotaging work efforts.

 

Female bullies demonstrate their power, whether consciously or not, toward individuals or groups. They are notorious for having the knack to exploit the vulnerabilities of other females. One may presume that a female boss would be more invested in mentoring other female staff and subordinates; this is a presumption only. Female bosses can present as caring and condescending at the same time. Drexler (2013) discussed how private information shared by a staff member with her allegedly, nurturing and supportive boss of the same gender could have unintended and disastrous results. The shared information might be used to diminish the staff member’s reputation, such as a disclosure about a failed relationship or even private medical or mental health condition. Even the potential legal ramifications that could present from this type of privacy breach may not deter the bully. This dynamic is one reason why experts advise that employees should keep all personal information close to the vest in the workplace (Mueller, 2011). This caution should extend to professional interactions and social events where colleagues might be in attendance.

 

The voracity by which women bully other women, as well as men is surprising, particularly with recent initiatives focused on outing males who engage in both bullying and sexual harassment of their employees. These employees are perceived as less powerful and vulnerable, and are most often women; 47% as opposed to 11% for men (Statista, 2017). TImesUp  continues to roar, expanding their efforts and initiatives including the formation of a new Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace. There is a recent partnership with ALL RAISE, an organization dedicated to accelerating the success of female funders and founders in the venture-backed tech realm. The collaborative goal is to grow initiatives for women, while assuring a safe and equitable workplace for all. 

 

Amid the importance of these very public efforts, it seems antithetical that female bosses would so fiercely continue to bully those of their gender, and with such prevelence. The widespread episodes of sexual harassment, now regularly reported across the media involve the same dynamics as those for bullying; individuals have abused their power to threaten, humiliate, and intimidate another person or persons. With the focus on shifting this culture, why do women continue to so readily bully their own?

 

Why Do Women Bully other Women?

I have been a victim of, as well as witness colleagues and friends experience the following behaviors and dynamics over the years:

·       Women engage in female relational aggression: the use of relationships to hurt others (Dellasega, 2007).

·       Woman want personal power independent of age; whether child, adolescent, or adult (Sutphen, in Dellasega, 2007).

·       With the majority of leadership positions routinely going to men, women look to freeze out the competition (Drexler, 2013).

·       Girls mature through forging relationships. If there is an issue with that process, they learn unhealthy patterns of interaction (Brown & Gilligan, 1992).

·       Insecurity (Redrick, 2015)

·       Healthy competition and confidence are encouraged in boys but less desirable traits for girls (Margolies, n.d.).

·       Traditional professional education and practice cultures support bullying more than negate it (Fink-Samnick, 2017).

·        Assertive women are mistakenly viewed as aggressive or ruthless by other women, this behavior perceived as bullying by those less assertive  (Sheppard and Aquino, 2014).

·       Women may mirror the bullying behavior of their male colleagues to be consistent with the organizational culture of the workplace.

 

The implications are beyond concerning:

·       Limited mentoring of the next generation of female professionals.

·       Devaluing the professional standing of the female workforce, 

·       Poor organizational morale,

·       Workforce retention challenges,

·       Increased mental health issues, and

·       Increased incidence of suicide.

 

We Can and Must Do Better! 

Calling out, identifying, and managing workplace bullying must be dealt with swiftly and directly. This has been discussed in prior blogs and articles, with an abundance of strategies and resources provided. In addition, there must be advocacy for the development, implementation, and support of initiatives that empower women in the workplace. I’ve had a number of exciting conversations with industry experts who possess great wisdom in this area. The following suggestions are a start in the right direction:

·       Gain greater understanding and education about the dynamics of human behavior, specific to women; Assertive women must be understood as opposed to feared.

·       Teach leadership styles and skills as integral education for any female professional.

·       Provide career mentoring for women at every level of the career ladder. 

·       Develop collectives, start ups, and partnerships that focus on leveraging the knowledge and expertise of women, and then,

·       Partner with education entities of all levels to reinforce the messaging through associates, baccalaureate, masters, and post-masters degree programs.

·       Embrace competition as a valuable and healthy competency for all genders.

·       Strive to build each other up as opposed to tear each other down.

·       Shift the culture; it is never easy, but doable with education, awareness, time, and consistency.


I am confident we can do better. Every step forward yields progress, no matter how big or small.  Now, who is with me?

 

Strategies, articles, and resources to manage workplace bullying appear in my past blog, Bullying and Leadership: Abusive and Vicarious Abusive Supervision

 

Let’s keep the conversation going…I look forward to your recommendations and thoughts, so feel free to add them.


Until next time...Stay Resilient,

Ellen

 

References: 

 

Brown, L.M. and Gilligan, C. (1992) Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girl’s Development, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 


Dellasega, C. (2007) Mean Girls Grow UP: Adult Women Who Are Still Queen Bees, Middle Bees, and Afraid-to-Bees, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey

 

Drexler, P. (6 March, 2013) The Tyranny of the Queen Bee, Wall Street Journal

 

Falzoi, D. (24 April, 2016) New study shows that prolonged exposure to workplace bullying can lead to suicide – and it can happen to anyone, MA Healthy Workplace Bill

 

Fink-Samnick, E. (2017) The New Age of Bullying and Violence in Health Care: Part 3, Managing the Bullying Boss and Leadership, Professional Case Management, November/December, 22(6) pg. 260-274


Fink-Samnick, E. (2016)The New Age of Bullying and Violence in Health Care: Part 2, Advancing Professional Education, Practice Culture, and Advocacy, Professional Case Management, May/June 2016, 21(3), pg 114-126 


Khazan, Olga (September 2017) Why Do Women Bully Each Other at Work, The Atlantic, Business 

 

Margolies, L. (N.D.) Competition Among Women: Myth and Reality, PsychCentral.com

 

Mueller, R.L. (2011) Bullying Bosses: A Survivor’s Guide, self-published through Wordpress  

 

Redrick, M. (9 April, 2015) Why Women Compete With Other Women, Huffington Post

 

Sheppard, L.D. and Aquino, K. (2017) A Theory of Female Same-Sex Conflict and Its Problematization in Organizations, June 2014, Journal of Management, 43 (3), pg. 691-715

 

Statista (2018) Share of Americans Who Have Been Victims of Sexual Harassment as of 2017, Statista 


Workplace Bullying Institute (2017) 2017 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey, Workplace Bullying Institute


 

Comments (4)

1. Bettina Voigt said on 4/8/18 - 05:46AM
Great blog Ellen! Great information and very insightful! I really hope this helps those that are bullied as well as empowers them to discuss and report! Tina
2. E.Wright said on 4/8/18 - 08:52PM
Thank you for taking the time to write about a topic that not too many write about. When I first enter the field I had a horrible experience. However, I didn't realize how toxic it was until I quit and other colleagues that had left the organization shared the same experience. many of us were interns trying to learn and complete our hours. This article is so helpful and empowering.
3. Ellen Fink-Samnick, MSW ACSW LCSW CCM CRP said on 4/9/18 - 05:19AM
The validation of these experiences continues to be so disheartening to hear. In our health and behavioral health realm, it continues to be alarming that so much energy has to be wasted on these negatives interactions; they take away from the quality of the client/patient experience. The behaviors also put all at risk. Understanding the dynamics fosters awareness, so we can call the behaviors out and address. The response for this latest blog has been powerful! #StopBullying #Empower, #MustDoBetter
4. Chriss Wheeler said on 4/18/18 - 09:58PM
Great article Ellen. Thank you!


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