Same-sex smackdown: Why women bully women at work
Maybe it’s happened to you.
Perhaps you’ve heard a horror story from a friend.
At the very least you’ve winced while watching it play out in movies like The Devil Wears Prada.
Yes, that’s right, we’re talking about the often savage phenomenon of women vs. women in the workplace.
Unfortunately, women bullying, backstabbing or blocking each other is all too common in our workplaces, especially from those in leadership positions. Studies have shown that female leaders are more likely to distance themselves from junior female colleagues than they are to support them.
With continued calls for more women in leadership positions, and the quest for gender equality sitting at number five of the UN’s seventeen sustainable development goals, why do we still have women cutting each other down instead of building each other up? Can this behaviour be put down to an individual’s personality traits? Is the workplace environment and structure to blame? And what can businesses be doing to alleviate it?
Back in the day
With even just a quick flick through the history books, it’s stunningly evident that women have faced barriers in all shapes and sizes when in, or attempting to enter, the workforce.
From cave dwellers through to feudal systems and into the post industrialised world, the universally accepted status quo was that men were the ones who went to work, and the women stayed at home.
On the rare occasions where women did pursue a professional career, their options were limited. In Australia, universities did not start accepting women as students until 1874.
Important women’s work: Ironing
With women largely denied the access, opportunities and pathways needed to make it in the world of work, most businesses were founded, grown and managed by men. This meant that the organisational structure and daily operations were tailored to the way men work and interact.
Displays of dominance and assertiveness were typically celebrated as a sign of good leadership, confidence and capability. Largely speaking, the culture within business suited those who displayed these stereotypically masculine qualities. And so, the stage was set!
Here come the women!
As the civil rights movement in the 1970’s brought about big changes, including equal minimum wage, the start of paid maternity leave, accepted access to birth control and government investment in childcare, more and more women began to enter the workforce.
However, for many women it was a bumpy entry, as they came up against tough structural barriers underpinned by deep rooted cultures where masculine traits reigned supreme.
There is absolutely no doubt that feminine traits are utterly essential to humankind in so many ways. However, when women finally got a foothold in the world of work, the rules of the game had already been written and feminine traits including empathy, vulnerability and care simply weren’t (and arguably still aren’t) part of a winning game plan at work.
Times have most definitely changed, with more and more women pushing past the glass ceiling to establish themselves in senior roles, including at the helm of some of the most powerful organisations, institutions and countries in the world.
No one is going to deny the fact that these women (especially the early pioneers that forged the path for others), have had to work incredibly hard to work their way up, given the long-standing patriarchal structure. Peggy Olson anyone? But how exactly have they done it? With so many forces working against them, how have they made the progress that they have in the world of work?
An everyday reminder that she’s taking the corporate world by storm.
Well, like with anything in life, when the odds are stacked against you, sometimes you need to grit your teeth and do what is required. So, in addition to the hard work, dedication and determination you typically see in any professional success story, for many women, getting to where they want to be, has meant ‘playing ball’. For most ambitious women, they too had to clearly demonstrate the masculine traits that were seen as ‘needed’ to ‘succeed’ within the world of work. It is this space that can become the breeding ground for women bullying other women.
Just like some of their male counterparts, some female leaders use masculine traits to exercise dominance in a work situation. Occasionally, a line can be crossed meaning these traits become dysfunctional or toxic.
While toxic masculinity from men is well documented (we’ve all heard stories, or seen footage in film or TV, of men shouting or acting aggressively at work), what we don’t hear a lot of is this kind of behaviour coming from a woman.
What might sound more familiar is women adopting a covert strategy, including snarky remarks, passive intimidation or sabotage. Although the approach might be different, the intention is the same.
Often, the target of such tactics will be female co-workers. Why?
Well, with senior roles for women scarce, competition is fierce. Sisterhood goes out the window and women turn their attention to other women whom they might consider to be a threat.
Sometimes the long, treacherous journey to success can also be treated like a badge of pride or a right of passage. The sentiment can sometimes be that, “given I did it tough to succeed, more junior women can’t just get a free pass.”
Unfortunately, this scenario is not just confined to women in the workforce. It can also affect members of other minority groups too. When people from a particular group are few and far between (whether that be segmented by race, sexual orientation, gender, physical ability etc.), it can sometimes feel tokenistic when one is promoted to a more senior position. That can then feed the competitive mindset, turning people against each other.
Only the strong survive?
Women on women bullying doesn’t only occur when someone feels threatened. Sometimes, women will bully other women whom they feel superior to.
For example, if a female co-worker falls on the more feminine side of the spectrum, displaying traits such as gentleness, empathy, humility, or sensitivity, they might find themselves being targeted by female leaders who view them as weak.
This kind of behaviour can be seen within a study carried out in Switzerland. The leaders (both the men and the women) who considered themselves to be superior, also rated themselves higher on the masculinity scale than their juniors. The female managers were also disinclined to identify with women who put their family first.
Even though they are the ones doing it, women bullying women at work isn’t an issue for women to solve alone.
It is within organisational culture as a whole where the changes need to be made.
Employers must strive for complete and authentic gender equality, actively engaging in practices that promote equal employment opportunities throughout all levels of their organisations.
Regardless of gender, feminine traits like empathy and compassion can be a huge asset, playing a vital role in the modern world of business.
By changing the landscape, we will slowly change the rules of the game, creating a more positive work environment with happy, engaged team members.
Then, instead of tearing each other down, people can focus their energy on working towards a common goal, as a collective – regardless of where they sit on the gender spectrum.
Faniko, Klea & Ellemers, Naomi & Derks, Belle. (2016). Queen Bees and Alpha Males: Are successful women more competitive than successful men?: Queen Bees and Alpha Males. European Journal of Social Psychology. 46. 903-913. 10.1002/ejsp.2198.
ThoughtCo. (2020). A Brief History of Women in Higher Education. [online] Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/history-women-higher-ed-4129738 [Accessed 20 Jan. 2020].
Blogs.slv.vic.gov.au. (2020). State Library Victoria Bella Guerin: first female university graduate in Australia. [online] Available at: https://blogs.slv.vic.gov.au/such-was-life/bella-guerin-first-female-university-graduate-in-australia/ [Accessed 27 Jan. 2020].
Archival Allsorts. (2020). The University of Adelaide: Pioneering Women’s Right to Higher Education. [online] Available at: https://blogs.adelaide.edu.au/uni-archives/2012/11/18/the-university-of-adelaide-a-pioneer-in-womens-right-to-a-higher-education/ [Accessed 20 Jan. 2020].