bullying: Homespun theory on an imperfect storm
October 4, 2013By David Yamadain diversity and inclusion,psychology and work, workplace bullyingTags: diversity,Psychology
[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
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
“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
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:
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
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
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.
April 20, 2011 at 2:12 am
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
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
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
knew one bully (my co-worker) who was the reason that TWO of our managers left
the company. And — they were good, knowledgeable managers.
IS that?? I will never get it.
have worked my whole career, 30 years, in Human Resources).
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
Deana Pollard Sacks says:
January 10, 2013 at 2:26 pm
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
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.
David Yamada says:
April 20, 2011 at 9:47 pm
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
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
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
April 20, 2011 at 10:27 pm
I would just make one other point. I’m not so convinced that the majority
of bullying is perpetrated by men.
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.
Cecilia Sepp says:
April 21, 2011 at 6:09 pm
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.
is a double standard, and women have not yet found their backbone to stand up
as humans rather than “women.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
April 26, 2011 at 2:05 pm
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.
April 29, 2011 at 5:31 pm
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.
May 2, 2011 at 9:55 am
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.
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.
May 8, 2013 at 6:12 pm
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.