by Liz O’Donnell (Boston)
Do women treat other women poorly at the office? If you read the newspaper you probably think so. In January, The New York Times ran a story called “A Sisterhood of Workplace Infighting.” The article talked about “the pink elephant lurking in the room” that women are their own worst enemies at work. Then in May the Times ran another article, this one titled “Backlash: Women Bullying Women at Work.” The article did point out that 60 percent of workplace bullies are men, according to The Workplace Bullying Institute. However, it went on to discuss that the 40 percent of female bullies tend to bully women more than they bully men.
The Glass Hammer also reported on the bullying study. Both our story and the New York Times piece shared stories of women treating women poorly, because sometimes they do. But then again, people in general can be mean sometimes. Our article, unlike the Times’ story, also pointed out that women are the most targeted overall (57%) by bullies.
It makes sense. By definition, bullies pick on those who have a hard time defending themselves. Bosses are usually better positioned to defend themselves. Subordinates are not. And since men still dominate the top managerial positions, there are more women subordinates in the workplace. So the fact that more victims are women makes statistical sense.
The Glass Hammer is also full of stories about women helping women because women do that too. But those stories aren’t as readily available in the big newspapers. If there is an elephant, of any color, in the boardroom, it is that hierarchal organizations are breeding grounds for bad behavior.
Says Gloria Feldt, women’s activist and author, “A hierarchical culture inherently facilitates behaving badly.” In that type of setting, Feldt says, women have two choices. They can refuse to adopt the workplace behavior and risk losing whatever career advancements they’ve gained, or they can adopt the dominant behavior of the culture.
A former sales manager for a financial company talks about the company she recently left. “The owners, a husband and wife bullied each other. That behavior goes downhill. People were so concerned they’d be the next on the list, they mirrored the behavior.” She left the company in March. “It was killing my marriage.” She says the office was so full of fighting and yelling, she started to bring the workplace behavior home. This woman does not think bullying is a gender story. She says it’s a “culture story. Women get blamed for being the bitch. But this is about people who don’t have social skills.” Today, she is happily married and running her own business.
Many academics and corporate coaches think that as women gain critical mass in Corporate America, that we will see a shift in dominating, hierarchal behaviors in favor of more cooperative, compassionate offices. But until that critical mass is gained, how can women thrive without adopting negative cultural norms? Can they break the cycle?
Feldt, who is the former president of Planned Parenthood, and has experience leading a large organization, says women should, “Be a sister to one another. Offer to help one another.” When women support each other, they can protect themselves from negative environments and model different types of behavior. Consider this email exchange between two women who used to work together at a large computer manufacturer.
“I was at a Woman’s Leadership Conference today. The morning speaker talked about what makes a great person and I was thinking of you. I remembered how your sense of humor, friendship and hospitality got me through my experience. Thank you.” And in response, “Thanks for your note … I am flattered. I always loved hanging out with you too. That’s what girlfriends do for each other!”
When women support one another that type of exchange is the norm. When they fight, we hear what another woman told me about the technology firm where she works. “I see it as women feel threatened more easily than men. They constantly feel the need to prove themselves and that at times bring out the nasty in them. Women are very territorial in the work place. Men are more willing to help out then women. That’s my experience.”
So to answer the original question, do women treat other women poorly at the office? No more than people treat people poorly at the office.