May 20th, 2009

Woman-on-Woman Bullying


Six explanations from us for why women bully other women at work.

Solidarity of the sisterhood is a myth and stereotype. It doesn’t mean it does not exist, it’s just that not all women are nurturant and supportive to one another. Neither is every man macho and hyper-aggressive. Stereotypes are generalizations about sex-role-typed behavior, common acts associated with only one gender and not the other. Many behaviors are gender-typed. 

Workplace Bullying is not gender-typed. Workplace environment factors are better predictors than gender. For example, a culture that carries no accountability or negative consequences, regardless of how harmful the behavior exhibited paves the way for bullies. A place where kissing-up (ingratiation) is the norm is fertile territory, where bullying and favoritism (and its converse, ostracism) thrive.

When we discuss the WBI Healthy Workplace Bill, we speak of “status-blind” harassment. Bullying crosses the boundaries drawn by gender, race, ethnicity, age, and disability. Thus bullying is truly “gender-free.”

What attracts the media to woman-on-woman (WOW) bullying is the fact that women are targeted at a higher rate by female bullies (71%) than by male bullies (46%). Yes, women are crueler to women than they are to men, and that must be explained. But don’t forget that 60% of all bullies are men. 31% of all bullying is men-on-men, 29% is WOW. Why is there so little interest in the more frequent variety of same-gender bullying? Because it’s discounted as routine, expected, predictable. WOW sounds mysterious, counterintuitive, and, I think, somewhat prurient.

So here are some explanations for WOW bullying that rarely make it into TV segments on bullying, print stories and the gabfest which is the blogosphere. We offer this because some readers might get the impression that we are misogynists. We are not! 57% of all bullied targets are women, and the majority of callers seeking help from us are women. We are women’s advocates in the fight against workplace bullying.

The WBI  starter list of explanations

A. It’s the workplace, not the people in it. Employers create work environments where aggression is rewarded. women see this (as well if not better than men) and learn to abuse others to get ahead. It’s the way things are done around here.

In male-dominated organizations, where men hold all the executive positions, women tend to adopt male-sex-typed behavior to survive and succeed. Only in female-run organizations (or those run by males who adopt a female-sex-typed style that values quality of interpersonal relationships as much as power and status differences) can there be hope for a less aggressive, more dignified and respectful way to operate.

See the Women and Bullying articles in our Research section for relevant studies about this particular angle.

B. A double standard about women is alive and well and practiced by both men and women. If women are “nice” they are too soft. If they are tough, they are “bitchy.” There are two social psychological explanations for this. 

First, it is gender bias in the causal attribution process. Causal attribution is simply showing a preference for explaining things that happen. Old research found that if a person is described succeeding at a task, the explanation depends on whether the person described is male or female. Success for men is typically explained by a trait, inherent skill, intelligence, ability. With exactly the same information, when it’s a woman, success is the result of the task being so easy anyone could have done it or luck. And both men and women elect those different explanations. 

Second, the first person to break any barrier and be the lone representative of a group (and therefore, be in the statistical minority) is called a “token.” Tokens are subjected to disproportionate pressure. Errors, however tiny, are magnified. Successes can also be blown out of proportion. In practice, token individuals often break from the pressure. Look at what Jackie Robinson had to endure when he broke the race barrier in the white baseball league. Same for the first woman CEO or the first woman to attain a high rank in any organization. Women are natural tokens in male-dominated domains, like business. Men are rarely the only male in any role, but when they are, they, too are tokens and heavily scrutinized.

C. Women targets are less likely to confront in response to being bullied. But targets, of both genders, rarely react with aggression. That’s what makes them targets. Bullies sense who will be an easier mark. Targets are sorted into those who take no action because of a higher moral calling. It could be their religion that tells them to turn the other cheek or to never lower oneself to the level of a tyrant. Other targets walk away in fear, stunned at the surprise attack. Getting away is the only reaction they have. Once away, they hope time will heal the wound or prevent it from happening again. Regardless of motive, targets do not defend themselves because either they are unable (it’s not their worldview and never acquired the skill of self-defense because it’s a fair world, no one will hurt you) or unwilling to do so. Targets are all “easy marks.” It’s not just women.

D. Most bullies are bosses (in the US, 72% of bullies are bosses). All bullies prefer to bully subordinates. It’s a permitted prerogative that makes being a boss attractive to many people. So, bullying flows downhill.

Women are bosses, too. But they are lower-ranking than men bosses (only 15% of executives are women, only 3% of CEOs). So they are more likely managing other women and not other men executives. They bully whoever they can. So, WOW may be nothing more than proximity at work. You bully those within reach.

E. Though I’m not a woman, I’ve had a great deal to do with them during my lifetime (and Ruth educates me constantly). (She says that) women are socialized to judge other girls while growing up. They pay attention to how others look and dress all the time. Self-identity can be almost entirely dependent on how others appear and how they are judged by others. Without comparisons to others, some would not know how to make decisions.

Two factors emerge. First, modeling one’s personal behavior on the actions of others gives a great deal of power to the other person. Clearly in WOW relationships where apparent friendship preceded bullying, the bully may have been respected by the future target. When she is betrayed, the target ruminates (for way too long) about the inexplicable turnaround, searching for a rational explanation. It doesn’t matter, it just happened because the bully wanted it to. Wanting to be like someone else gives away too much personal control over one’s own life and choices made.

Second, the skill of paying attention since childhood determines the adult woman’s perceptual field. Other women are salient in the social world. More information is gleaned from cultivating relationships with women. Abusive, exploitative relationships with one person dominating the other is simply a twisted, sick reliance upon getting information from another woman (to then be used against her). Targets fall into the trap easily.

F. Feminist writers claim that women grow up accustomed to having their personal boundaries invaded and thus learn to treat other women that same way. A girl’s opinions are treated as irrelevant by the father compared to her brother’s. A girl’s ambitions are tamped down, expectations made more “realistic,” dreams treated as impossible. This is denial of her very psychological integrity, a discounting of her humanity. If this is how she is raised, she grows accustomed to being treated rudely or denigrated as not deserving equal status with others. So, when bullied at work, the immediate reaction is rarely outrage and righteous indignation that a fool would dare lie so readily or be so unapologetically cruel. It is more likely a timid turing away, starting immediately to blame herself, buying into the lies (as if some “kernel of truth” is buried in all the manure), and spiraling into a psychologically compromised state.

Read Phyllis Chesler’s Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman in the Recommended Books section.

So, there’s my preliminary thinking about the topic. Do you see why reporters can’t handle all this information?

Women:  share your favorite explanation for WOW bullying by adding a comment. We want to see lots of input from you, the experts.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 20th, 2009 at 3:24 pm and is filed under Bullying-Related Research, Fairness & Social Justice Denied, Tutorials About Bullying. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.



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