It’s hard enough competing in a job market where there are more qualified candidates than there are open positions but what do you do when your biggest nemesis is another woman abusing you to get to the top?
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute-Zogby survey, women single out other women 71 percent of the time. Women bullies also liked to enlist others to help target and harass other women. Fifty-three percent of the women being targeted suffered serious mental and physical harm as opposed to the 36 percent of the men who were bullied.
A question was posted on LinkedIn Discussion forums asking why women were tougher on other women and 85 percent of responses I received point to women as being more competitive, insecure and more aggressive with other women than they are with men. Others responded to me in a private email, discussing their own experiences with female bosses and coworkers— one man even responded saying, “I don’t know why but I have found it to be absolutely true.”
While not all female workers fall into the bullying category and some LinkedIn responders even shared some stories of positive relationships with their women bosses, many still acknowledged that women-on-women harassment is a prevailing issue in the workplace.
“My experience with women bosses has been awful,” says Margaret P, a print production professional. “It is shameful that some women do not have the skill set to become mentors to other women. I have been considered a threat way too many times in my career. Funny, I’ve never had a man feel that way.”
The female double standard
There is a double-edged sword for women in leadership positions. When a woman is tough and aggressive, she is often labeled a “bitch.” If a woman is friendly and accommodating, she is viewed as a “push over” and not deemed leadership material.
“Even though we’ve come a long way, women still are not on an equal par with men. The perception is that we are ‘softer’ than men. So often times, women will become harder to show they can be compete in management roles,” says Dr. Barbara Seifert, founder of Committed to Your Success Coaching & Consulting.
The workplace had always been a “man’s world” and women in the workforce vying for the coveted executive-level position with men is a fairly new phenomenon that the corporate culture is still adjusting to. Those in management often question a woman’s ability to lead while men are always presumed to have what it takes. Many women bosses had to climb the corporate ladder having to contend with mostly-male competitors and it maybe why some women confuse authority with aggression.
As a society, boys are taught early on to work together and play on teams such as baseball and football, which teaches them valuable skills in team effort. Girls on the other hand are raised to be individuals, to dress-up, make-up, and play with Barbie dolls and to behave in a manner acquiescent of “sugar and spice and everything nice.” As girls mature into adulthood, the spirit of teamwork isn’t as developed, and it’s often why a woman finds herself fending for herself in the workplace.
Women are often easy targets
It’s common sense that bullies pick on the ones least likely to fight back and the ones most targeted are women who are often viewed as more accommodating. “Women targets are less likely to confront in response to being bullied. But targets, of both genders, rarely react with aggression. Bullies sense who will be an easier mark,” says Dr. Gary Namie, co-founder of The Workplace Bullying Institute.
“Targets do not defend themselves because either they are unable or unwilling to do so.” In cases of bullying, both male and female bosses targeted women more frequently, albeit in different ways. Male bosses were more direct and vocal in their harassment while women bosses were indirect and passive-aggressive about it.
Typically, women target other females because they feel women are simply easier to bully. It could also be that women bosses still feel inferior to other males in the office and seek to maintain her authority by dominating the women in the office. Faith Bell, a doctoral candidate at Walden University, recalls the time when she was the target of a female boss. “She made me terminate employees, whether I was their supervisor or not. I felt like she covertly tried to sabotage my employment.” Bell admits being scarred by her past experiences though she is quick to point out that she was able to move on by simply refusing to let one woman stand in the way of her success.
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Women are naturally competitive
As children, girls were never quite sensitized to working together so it’s a natural progression for young women to always seek to out perform another woman. It’s a constant battle to be the homecoming Queen— the smartest, prettiest, most popular one dating the coveted high school Quarterback.
This also maybe why women tend to judge one another more often and more harshly: Competent women, intelligent women, popular women and attractive women are often singled out. Examples of girl-on-girl aggression are exemplified in teen films like Heathers, Mean Girls and Pretty in Pink. It’s a view at how girls dominate and overpower one another in order to be the leader; it’s this concept of being the envy of all the other girls, which follows many women into the workforce.
“Insecurity is the underlying issue. Some women, who have worked very hard to get to their position in an organization, may feel threatened if a prettier, younger, more educated, etc. woman comes up the ranks quicker than they did,” says Caroline Hazen, human resources professional. Unfortunately women-on-women harassment is a battle where there are never any winners. It hurts qualified women from achieving the kind of success most are entitled to. It also hurts the reputation of women workers and this can often lead to male employees getting to the top first.
Resolving women-on-women conflicts
As with any matters involving employee relations, the onus is on the management to resolve matter of conflicts. The problem here is that in most of the cases involving boss-subordinate issues, the company human resources managers tend to look the other way, putting the blame on what is presumed to be the “difficult employee.” The boss is usually the one with power and in a game of power politicking, the subordinate is always deemed more dispensable than the supervisor.
However this is where most companies err in judgment because it’s often more costly to continuously replace employees while making up for lost productivity. The employer must take necessary steps to alleviate and resolve conflicts between employees, taking into account those workers that frequently exhibit the most egregious behavior. The one with most complaints against them should be the focus of the attention and if this happens to the supervisor in question, it’s best that her direct report be alerted to the situation. The worst thing that company management can do is to do nothing.
Tips for employees and bosses: For both women bosses and subordinates, it’s crucial to acknowledge how each member can contribute to the good of the company. Always assume that you have something to learn from the other— a boss can learn as much from her subordinates as much as the subordinates can learn from the boss.
Don’t feel threatened and insecure by someone who seems to know more than you. Use their knowledge to learn different and new ways of doing something. Thank the other person for showing you something new. Praise each other when the opportunity arises— “Nice job on that presentation.” You will find compliments often get reciprocated. This is one of the best ways of dissolving some of the tension in your work relationship. And always be open, honest and forgiving in an effort to develop that long-term positive relationship.
Standing up for yourself, the right way
Many women feel reluctant to come forward with a complaint for fear of termination but truth is, if someone is indeed bullying you, blaming you, and abusing you, it’s likely that she will terminate you anyway. Also, remember that bullies do always back down.
First and foremost, try to approach your boss by sending an email explaining how her actions hurt your performance and company’s bottom line. Be diplomatic but firm and let her know that her abusive behavior hurts everyone in the long run. Expect that once she receives the email, she will probably retaliate against you— reducing your pay, increasing your workload, verbally reprimanding you on your “bad performance”— are some common incidences of retaliation.
If this happens, you need make a formal complaint to HR and your boss’s direct report. Doing this could be your best defense against termination and here is why: Indicate in your complaint that your boss is retaliating against you for approaching her about her abusive actions. Being a woman automatically puts you in the protected class so try to make your formal complaint be about getting targeted for being a woman.
It doesn’t matter that the bully is another female— if she bullies only females and coddles the male employees, it’s still gender bias. Also, retaliation is illegal so if you let HR know that this is going on, they’ll be very hesitant to discharge you. Tell your boss’s supervisor or your company HR that you feel physically and mentally injured by the constant abuse. If you have other coworkers experiencing similar abuse, try to come forward together.
In all likelihood, your company management will look into the matter pretty quickly if you put your complaint in those terms. Hopefully, it never has to be carried this far but some workplace issues can’t ever be resolved with a single complaint.
Realize that often times, people who do take a stand have a healthier outlook about their career prospects. So given that, do you really want to give up your right to work in healthy environment?
For more articles from Ji Hyun Lee, please check out: The Politics Series: The Politics of Facebook Friending your Colleagues | The Politics of being a Woman on the Job: Why can’t we all just get along? | The Politics of Being Young on the Job: Managing the Kid Boss | The Politics of being cute on the job: Are you too Sexy for the Workplace? | The Politics of the bad boss | The Politics of Office Romance
Everything in between: Tips for managing the Millennial Generation | When You’re Smarter than the Boss | Knowing When to Speak Up and When Not to |Equal Work, Unequal Pay: What to do if You’re the Victim of Gender Discrimination
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