Yesterday the New York Times featured an article on workplace bullying and the (according to the author) “pink elephant. . . lurking in the room” is the fact that female bullies target other women much more often that not. In the article, “A Sisterhood of Workplace Infighting,” leadership coach Peggy Klaus says that “female bullies aim at other women more than 70 percent of the time,” whereas male bullies are more “equal-opportunity tormentors” (h/t to regular commenter Indyanna for bringing this article to my attention.) Klaus recites a number of reasons why women may target other women for abuse:
I’ve heard plenty of theories on why women undermine one another at work. Probably the most popular one is the scarcity excuse — the idea that there are too few spots at the top, so women at more senior levels are unwilling to assist female colleagues who could potentially replace them.
Another explanation is what I call the “D.I.Y. Bootstrap Theory,” which goes like this: “If I had to pull myself up by the bootstraps to get ahead with no one to help me, why should I help you? Do it yourself!”
Some people argue that women aren’t intentionally undermining one another; rather, they don’t want to be accused of showing favoritism toward other women.
I agree that these first three reasons, while wrong-headed, are excuses that people offer to explain bad behavior. I’ve never understood the zero-sum mentality of “scarcity,” especially in the academic workplace. Unlike people outside of academia, who are vulnerable to layoffs and being replaced by younger and cheaper employees, tenured faculty are safe. They’re made men and women, so they have nothing to lose when their junior colleagues succeed, and if they have even a glimmer of civic-mindedness about their jobs they’ll be happy that their colleagues are thriving and making the department look good. (Besides, rational Deans reward departments that are good at hiring and promoting good people, and they tend to look askance at departments who keep asking for lines to search because they keep firing the people they’ve recently hired. Or so I like to think, in my dreamy dreamworld–those of you with administrative experience, please weigh in here!)
Here’s where I disagree with Klaus:
Others contend that women mistreat one another because of hyperemotionality, leading them to become overly invested in insignificant nuances and causing them to hold grudges. I’ve encountered this phenomenon among women who feel personally assaulted when someone criticizes them or their ideas.
Maybe my experience is exceptional, rather than typical, but I’ve worked with many more men who are inclined to lash out emotionally. Even in so-called “liberal” academia, women know we have to play by different rules. We have to be much more calculating and careful about our clothing choices in our classrooms and offices, we can’t bring our kids to faculty meetings, and we surely can’t lash out emotionally at our colleagues (or worse, cry in front of them.) Bear in mind, here: I’m not making an essentialist argument that men are more emotionally volatile than women. I’m suggesting that it’s a marker of power and male privilege that men can lash out emotionally without it hurting their careers. They can use anger in particular, in the service of making their point or getting their way. This is also surely a raced phenomenon: white men can get angry and their majority white colleagues get worried that Daddy isn’t happy. Black or Latino men who get angry and start yelling–well, that’s just scary, right? And we all know that if a woman of any ethnicity gets angry and starts yelling, she’s just a crazy b!tch.
I think Klaus also missed some important reasons why women target other women: like men, they’re also much more critical of women, and they hold other women to higher standards than they do their male colleages. No matter what women do, it’s never enough, and it can always be twisted to be evidence of something bad that highlights a defect in your career. Did you win a teaching award this year? Well, that just proves you’re not serious about your research agenda. Did you win a major fellowship to pursue your research? Well, that just shows that you’re not serious enough about establishing yourself here and that you don’t take the teaching mission of your college seriously. Did you agree to chair a major committee, either inside or outside of your university? That just proves that your priorities are screwed up–you really should be working on your scholarship. Did you refuse a service assignment so that you could focus on your research? That just proves that you’re slacking the unglamorous work off on the rest of us. Women and men alike know implicitly that it’s so much easier to take uncharitable readings of women’s records than of men’s records, and women and men alike do it.
Klaus goes on to explain why sometimes competitive feelings between women don’t have appropriate outlets, and here I think she’s onto something:
[S]ome people assert that while women compete quite ably on the sports field and in the classroom, they haven’t learned how to compete in a healthy way at the office. For example, men often handle their feelings of envy and jealousy with humor and a left-handed compliment: “I’m going to whip your butt on our sales goals this month.” Or, “Who’d you have to pay off for that promotion?” They deal with it, and they move on. Although considered perfectly acceptable for men in most business settings, this kind of banter is not as socially acceptable for women.
We women always have to be nice–nice to each other, nice to male colleagues, nice nice nice. (This is also related to the dominant class identity that we maintain in academia.) We have to compliment each other all of the time, we have to smile and nod approvingly through every hallway conversation through the day. While by and large I think it’s desirable for colleagues to be friendly to each other, I think Klaus has a point about how much more hostile and aggressive “I’m going to whip your butt in teaching evaluations this year” would sound among women colleagues than among male colleagues. I agree with her entirely here:
[I]n the end, determining why women undermine one another’s workplace success isn’t what’s most important. Rather, we need to simply stop our own misbehavior and to call our colleagues on theirs.
Many of us, however, find it hard to even acknowledge mistreatment by another woman. We fear that bringing our experience into the light and talking about it will set us back to that ugly gender stereotype we have fought so hard to overcome: the one about the overemotional, backstabbing, aggressive (and you know what’s coming) bitch.
Yet, expecting women to be universally supportive of one another or to give preferential treatment to anyone with two X chromosomes is an equally unworkable view.
If we really want to clear one of the last remaining hurdles to gender parity and career success, let’s start treating one another not worse or better, but simply as well as we already treat the guys — or better yet, the way we want our nieces, daughters, granddaughters and sisters to be treated.
I think treating people as individuals, rather than making assumptions about their racial, gender, class, or sexual identities, and then assuming what these identities mean in terms of their needs and interests is a good place to start. (And yes, being nice is a good place to start, but women shouldn’t be held to higher standards of niceness.)
Your thoughts, my dear readers? (And by the way, that color looks fantastic on you.)
26 Responses to “Women bullying women”