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Women bullying each other at work

Categories: Career Talk, Working Women Issues


Another title for this post could be: What the f* is wrong with us, women!

I read in an article over the weekend that according to the Workplace Bullying Institute (is there an institute for everything?) when women bully others at work they target other women 70% of the time, while men tend to target women and men equally. Workplace bully-like behavior is an ugly thing on its own, but the fact that women undermine each other and are nasty to each other more often just plain sucks. (I was going to write something more eloquent, but this topic doesn’t deserve it.)

This isn’t the first article written about how terrible women can be to each other in the workplace and it’s not the first time I write about it here — my post about being tired of dealing with bitchy women at work is one of the most popular on this blog. Every time I think about this topic I go through the list of reasons/theories for why women have such a hard time supporting each other in the workplace: (the author of the article I mentioned has a similar list):

Scarcity theory — we think that there are only a few positions of leadership available and we don’t want to help other women get there because it will mean we won’t.

I-had-to-fight-and-you-should-too theory — women at the top believe that younger, more junior women should fight their way up the ladder without any extra help.

Don’t-want-to-play-favorites theory — if I help you, others might think I am playing favorites because we’re both women.

Women-don’t-know-how-to-compete-at-the-office theory — we haven’t been in the workplace for long enough to figure out how to compete with other women without bullying/undermining/being bitchy to them.

I would never suggest that as women, we should support each other simply because we’re women. That’s as ridiculous as being nasty to each other just because we’re women. But I do think it’s important to think about our interactions at work and be consious of how we might be altering our behavior when dealing with other women. The only way to prove the theories above wrong is to stop acting on them.

I like to end depressing blog posts on a good note, if I can — yes, I’m a little cheesy that way — and I have one. Here it is: I think as we gain more and more leadership positions at work, start and run more companies, lead and grow more teams, run for and get appointed to the highest political offices, we’re beginning to chill out a bit in ways we deal with other women around us. It’s about feeling confident, in my opinion, and it undermines all the theories above:

If I am confident as a woman in my position at work, I don’t worry about helping other women get to the top and then having them replace me.

If I am confident, then I know that my fight to get to the top has only made me stronger and I relish the opportunity to pass on my wisdom to other women.

If I am confident, I don’t worry how others may percieve my support of other women and don’t much care if they think I am playing favorites.

If I am confident I know damn well how to compete, on the sports field or at work, with women or men.

OK, I am drinking a lot of women power Kool Aid right now, but I really do believe this. And before this becomes the longest and most boring posts of this blog’s history, I am going to stop writing and ask you to share your thoughts:  Have you every been bullied by a woman at work? Why do you think women do this? Do you think as women, we’re getting better at being supportive of each other at work or do you think it’s a lost cause?

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22 comments so far...

  • Nataly-

    This is a great topic. I think you are right on several points, but I think female bullying starts in childhood and carries over into adulthood at the office playground. I have explored toxic workplaces in my research as it is statistically at an all-time high. Corporate culture often promotes and rewards this type of managment and interpersonal style in the workplace. As the workplace has become an ever increasingly stressful place to be, women who are willing to carry blackberry’s and email senior level management and theirclients into the wee hours of the morning are now the norm. The tradeoffs are enormous and this actually promotes aggression toward those who may be more balanced. I recently did a radio interview in which the topic was workplace aggression. Many female callers had experienced this type of aggression. For anyone interested in listening in click on radio.

    Leslie  |  January 19th, 2009 at 9:15 am

  • Yes, I have definitely been bullied by another woman at work. It was my boss at my first post-graduate school full-time job. It was completely clear to me at the time that she felt very threatened by me—younger, smarter, more capable, and with a Ph.D. to boot, plus I was nicer so the other employees at my job sided with me about the bullying. In the end she got fired, which was sweet revenge. But the experience was devastating for me and did a lot to (negatively) shape my view of the career world.

    In the personal realm, I’ve also been bullied outside of the workplace, by another woman who very clearly felt insecure about her own mothering/work choices and therefore felt justified in spreading lies about me on the Internet. As a friend of mine said at the time, regarding the way women sometimes turn on each other, “Good Lord! Save us from ourselves!”

    Shannon  |  January 19th, 2009 at 10:22 am

  • I believe the key word that you have used is Confidence. Many women suffer from a lack of confidence and self esteem and operate using a method of “blow out all the candles around me so that I may shine”. Long ago I had to deal with an employee with 25+ years on the job. She had no children and was sort of a permanent fixture. However she never advanced higher than AR. She made digs at me, the only other woman in the office that wasnt management, all day, every day. If my baby was sick, she would remark about “some people are just unreliable” ect. I eventually quit so I didnt deal with the situation as well as I could have.
    Now, I have used the experience to boost confidence all around me. By teaching others skills, I consider it an honor when they move on to higher positions. I have helped build a stronger team and that seems to be my strong suit. I have many good creative ideas when it comes to pooling thoughts, but when I get acknowledged with something that wasn’t my idea, I am sure to name the true creator. “Oh no that was’nt my idea, that great solution belongs to Susan”. And then add with a wink, “Just in case the idea flops”.

    Lissa  |  January 19th, 2009 at 9:24 pm

  • Oh, yes. I’ve been bullied by women leads. And more than one. I think the reason is that women bosses are a little more scared of undesired outcomes. They want to premedicate everything. These women were total ‘control-freaks’. They would just get jittery when they felt out of control. In my experience, women bosses generally don’t trust you much, micromanage, and breathe down your throat all the time. These queen bees like to monitor their ’subjects’ closely at all times. All this plus a feeling that they are always right, or they know best. And boy, is it a pain to their subordinates! They forget - other people can think for themselves and are entitled to opinions.

    Nataly - I sort of think your ‘I-had-to-fight-and-you-should-too theory’ is true. “I work so many hours, then why can’t you? I used to have small kids too…” keeps coming at you. How can you tell your boss - ‘Well, because I am me, right, I am not you. And I love my family and want a healthy work-life balance.’ It is disheartening to see bosses treat you like you don’t matter, just the work does. It IS true, but they can pretend, at least :)

    Inclusivity at the workplace is still just a notion anyway. ‘We encourage women and minorities to join us’ most company websites will proudly boast. But how many actually have policies to help the women out? With all this, you don’t want someone, anyone, to bully you as well!
    To talk of support, there is a lot of support among peers, but not any for those junior to you.
    Any more typing, and this comment would be bigger than the post itself! :)

    Manju  |  January 20th, 2009 at 3:09 am

  • Nataly,

    I think your comments are excellent. To use the words of my great father, people need to “paddle their own canoe”. Much of the bullying stems from people who are not focused on themselves and their own goals, but on others and how they can cut other people down. Women, for some strange reason appear to be worse, why? I still cannot work that one out, i am a woman who has worked with bullying women, it is not nice.  |  January 20th, 2009 at 6:00 am

  • One word: WOW!!!

    I am a recent college graduate and have just entered the workforce. So all my girlfriends and i have been dealing with this very subject. WHY are women so mean??? And i must say your theories seem to have diagnosed mine and my friends co-workers right on the money.

    I have fwd this post to all my females and I hope that this will help them understand as much as it has helped me.


    Lizi Fetter  |  January 20th, 2009 at 12:54 pm

  • This is a great topic to bring awareness to what can be happening.
    With awareness comes the ability to check ourselves and see if we may be contributing to the situation, or begin to understand what the dynamics are.
    There is a great book “Odd Girl Out” that talks about the higgen aggression in women and it is a result of how we are raised as girls. It is a must read if you have daughters and great revelation can come from reading as an adult woman.

    Bette  |  January 20th, 2009 at 1:30 pm

  • I’ve been bullied in the workplace by another woman, but I feel she also bullied other men just as much. I think in the long run women bully other women more because of the way women in general handle things. We tend to give the “silent treatment” and are more non-confrontational, whereas men are much more upfront with what’s going on and will hash it out right then and there. It probably boils down to a confidence thing in the end, but I think it’s women on both sides of the bullying. If you feel you’re getting bullied, why don’t you confront the person doing it to you? It worked for me, and when she didn’t want to admit that she was doing anything wrong, I went above her and eventually she got fired.

    Tricia  |  January 20th, 2009 at 2:18 pm

  • This is really beyond my understanding. Yet, I have been bullied by a woman at a former workplace. I was actually singled out by her and harassed to the point that I had to report it. It was baffling to me. My husband has also been bullied at work by both men and women. Mostly by people from the I-had-to-fight-and-you-should-too theory. I don’t get that either.

    The women at my current workplace don’t bully each other that I know of. If they did, I would nip that right in the bud, as a supervisor. Totally unacceptable to bully anyone, male or female. Bullying comes from insecurity. People need to grow up and work as a team.

    Robyn  |  January 20th, 2009 at 3:41 pm

  • I have *absolutely* been bullied by other women at work. I believe I lost my last job partly because of this (although it was a good thing so I don’t hold any grudges :). I agree with the other posters that, in every case, I was bullied do to the great insecurity of the bullier — one had come into the job through a less conventional job track, and I think she saw me as the privileged high-flier that she’d been fighting against her whole career. another had two small children at home and was, I think, struggling against her ambivalence about her new role as mom, and in that struggle, lashing out against other mothers, and anyone that was naturally smart and capable. I wasn’t the only victim; one extremely bright, hard-working, and long-tenured woman was relentlessly criticized, often in front of the whole group. she’d lash out at contractors, too, especially those who were confident and whose writing talents were the largest.

    I think it’s because women tend to struggle with self-doubt more frequently than men, and perhaps it’s also the case that physical bullies (as boys) tend to end up in the military or other structured environments where they can develop confidence before being set loose on the workforce.

    sarah gilbert  |  January 23rd, 2009 at 11:46 am

  • Part of the reason for this phenomenon may be that many women were not raised with the benefit of organized team sports. Women are taught from a young age to be compliant and friendly not competitive; being assertive is seen as un-lady like. Therefore they adapt and find more overt ways to have their needs met, they tend to establish very close personal friendships with a very limited number of other girls whereby boys are raised completely differently. Where “boys will be boys” allows them more freedom of expression and team oriented sports gives them a positive outlet for aggression and competition. Boys learn by developing very large networks of friends that intelligence, personal strength and agility when used properly to benefit the “TEAM” is the quickest way for them to reach victory and success.

    The good news is Ladies, that times are definitely changing and girls are starting to level the playing field, both on the playground and in the boardroom. Offering a person a hand up on the job in no way puts you one step below, it makes you stronger, your team more stable and your company more profitable.

    They say it is easier to pick up a bad habit from those around you than to spread good habits to others so lets do something to change the situation. . .Let us all at this very moment resolve to put more energy in discussing and becoming positive role models to the young women beneath us, it is their success that will greatly impact our future. Let us vow not to propagate the negative stereotypes that plague great women of our day. Let’s try to see those bullies who search for success for themselves by stepping on the backs of others for what they truly are. . . unenlightened, living in the shadow of another way of life. They are dinosaurs whose time on this earth is limited.

    We are blessed to live in a time of great change and I for one am inspired and grateful.

    Mrs. Campbell  |  January 23rd, 2009 at 12:11 pm

  • I am a victim of a female sales manager bullying me at work, I know that is was one of the worst times in my career, everything this I did or said was questioned or ridiculed. From what I understand she was threatened by me and feared I was after her position. I ended up quitting a high paid position,because I couldn’t handle the harassment, I now wish I could have had some support on how to deal with this one individual.

    Gayla  |  January 23rd, 2009 at 1:08 pm

  • I think you’ve hit on a good point about confidence. I hope to help my daughter (and son) be confident from a young age. And teach them how to treat people. And how to react to mean people.

    Rachel  |  January 23rd, 2009 at 1:45 pm

  • I think that many women`s self esteem is still based on how attractive they perceive themselves to be in the eyes of men. At the same time, we live in a culture in which men strive for eachothers approval. In other words we are the objects of judgement while men are the subjects of judgement. Many women are still thinking this way about themselves, let alone being able to appreciate eachother as human beings.

    Noelle Ibrahim  |  January 23rd, 2009 at 2:11 pm

  • Nataly, we are in sync with blog topics:

    I think the Kool-Aid tastes delicious!

    Gayle Kesten

    Gayle Kesten  |  January 23rd, 2009 at 3:39 pm

  • Nataly - I read with interest your post on women bullying each other. And why they do. In my 35+ years of business experience I find it the rule rather than the exception. Even with women biz owners. I believe it’s often what a person knows. Can do. And can get away with.

    While many of the reasons you list are viable, I often find this happening because women bring so much emotion to the table. Unlike men, who leave emotions at the door, it’s natural for women to include them as part of every situation. So business dealings, decisions, meetings , for example, are infused with the emotions in play at that moment. All influenced by them.

    To compound this, in work situations - with both men and women - women are easy targets for bullying. Men, knowing most women are emotional beings. Believing they can ridicule those thoughts and decisions as silly or worthless. While a part of the bully is insecure, they are also out for control. Constantly reaching for greater control of what surrounds them. Often bullied, by others themselves, they’ve learned the lessons well. Seeming to know, without fail, who they can effectively bully. On the other hand, a bullied woman simmers silently. Her silence festering, then turning to anger. And she, in turn - learning from the bully - begins to turn that anger outwardly. Generally onto other easily targeted women. Thus creating a highly charged and dysfunctional atmosphere. Making us all products of our environment. For good or bad.

    Bottom line, it’s important to keep our emotions under control. Even when bullied. To speak up for ourselves in an unemotional “just the facts” way, with quiet confidence. Remember, a bully always goes after those they believe are fearful, beneath them, or whom they perceive as questioning their authority. Believing they’ll get away with it. So it’s important to be strong and quietly forceful - not angry. On the other hand it’s also important to remember a bully is - themselves - a highly vulnerable individual. And will generally come around when you face up to them squarely.

    Jean L. Serio  |  January 23rd, 2009 at 4:21 pm

  • The majority of the frustration I have that is co worker related comes from other woman. I just want to do my job but we as woman bring so much drama and insecurity into the picture. And as a black woman in the workplace I have to watch how I respond to the bullying or I will be labeled the “mad black woman with the attitude ” in the office. I just want to take care of my clients that’s all.

    anjolcake  |  January 24th, 2009 at 9:14 am

  • I think taking a look at the animal kingdom gives us an insight into bullying. When we watch nature documentaries we see animals doing what they do. They’re all trying to get what they need and want to survive - food, shelter, a mate. Every time another animal is in their vicinity, they make an (unconscious) assessment of the situation and what effect that animal has on their survival. Can it help me or hurt me? Is it something I can eat, or something that wants to eat me? If not, they ignore it. If it is, the question becomes: Can I fight them and win? If they’re confident they can, they’re likely to fight. If they fear they can’t, they flee. If they think they’ve got a chance, and they figure it’s worth a shot - for example if they’re really hungry - they might go ahead and take their chance in a fight, on the other hand they might decide they’ll go hungry for a while longer and flee.

    Fundamentally it’s an issue of power. If they think they have the power to win, they fight, if they think they’ll lose, they’ll flee. Now let’s switch to the office. Bullies do an assessment of the situation: Do I have the power to dominate this person to get what I want? If they do, they bully. If they don’t, they don’t. Simple.

    Notice that people who bully don’t do it all the time. They don’t bully people who have more power than they do, (because they fear they’ll ‘lose’). They do bully people when they think they have more power, (because they think they’ll ‘win’).

    Bullying is power-based, dominating, competitive,exploitive behaviour. It’s a selfish determination on the part of the person doing the bullying to use whatever real or perceived power (leverage) they have to manipulate others to get what they want - with no care and consideration for what others want, and how they feel.

    Many people have fallen into the trap of getting good at beating bullies at their own game. That just makes them bullies too. Not something I want to be. After a lifetime of being dominated by others, I’ve finally learned how to communicate with people who try to bully me - without dominating or submitting - no fighting and no fleeing. Even in the face of the most vicious domination, the art of cooperation has grace and elegance and dignity that makes for a much lighter, more balanced, happy and harmonious life!

    Sue-maree McEnearney  |  March 28th, 2009 at 8:44 pm

  • I would like to say that truly women are awful to work with very close that it. I like my job but not these women, I sit back and listen and try not to engage, they are mean, sneaky, and decitful! I’m embarased to know them and will do nothing out of the work place with them. This is a wonderful job on the subject because I thought I was going crazy with all these thoughts and actually have almost had a nervous breakdown from them. Feel I actually need to talk to a counsellor at times of how mean they are. Now I sit back and try to lay low, they have said every rude thing and been so sneaky. I thought I was going nuts and realize I’m not. I do know they have run off every other person that has been before me.

    anne  |  September 13th, 2009 at 1:31 am

  • Yes, I have been bullied by women and men at work. The woman who does most of the bullying does it by geeting the men to go after who ever her target is for the moment. I have been one of her favorite targets for 10 years. I have not quite because I am a single parent, in a field where jobs are hard to find (academic), and living far from any family support system. I often spend my weekends crying myself sick —today was the ulitimate. Asked to put together an important report (which took me and the committee months of hard work), the bully constantly told us that we were doing a great job, supported our proposal, etc. The week before the meeting, her and her white 30 something male lap dog went on a smear campaign against our recommendations. Real sneaky stuff…I saw it happening, but couldn’t stop it. At the meeting her tag team of “boys” basically said the plan was dumb (it is not), we were dumb, etc…and effectively erased our existence…I was humiliated, angry but refused to show it. If I could resign I would…this sort of tactic has been used on me for ten years. Sometimes I feel like I am going to have a nervous breakdown, but I am stuck here for now, can’t quite…somebody please offer advise…

    JD1958  |  January 23rd, 2010 at 12:05 am

  • It’d be justice served if every gal from whom I’ve experienced and experiencing self-serving, two-faced, duplicitous, subtle bullying behaviour, finally get their manifold comeuppance.

    Women are their own worst enemies.

    Sharon  |  January 23rd, 2010 at 8:20 am

  • Yes, but fortunately only on a few occasions. The first took the form of completely dominating everything, to the point that over the course of 2 years our “shared room” had become her room and my corner - she gradually had pushed all the furniture over!
    Currently, there is a women at work who likes to run a smear campaign every year- all very subtle. There is a new target every year and guess what– this is my lucky year! I’m transferring out, but I find some, not all women to be so very self centered and petty that at times it is an embarrassment to be a member of the gender:)

    leah  |  March 22nd, 2010 at 7:21 pm