April 21st, 2014

Workplace Bullying: Gender and the U.S. Bullying Experience


Question: Think of the perpetrator and target of repeated abusive mistreatment at work. What as the gender of each?

The vast majority of bullies are men (69%, See Figure 3). Male perpetrators seem to prefer targeting women (57%) more than other men (43%). Women bullies were less “equitable” when choosing their targets for bullying. Women bullied women in 68% of cases. [In past WBI national Surveys, the woman-on-woman bullying percentages were similarly disproportionately high.]

When considering all four combinations of gender pairs, the two most frequent were both when the perpetrator was male. Female targets bullied by men comprised the largest group (39%), followed by men bullied by men (30%), women bullied by women (21%), and the rarest of all, men bullied by women (10%).

Women were targets in 60% of cases.

An alternative analysis is to cross the respondents’ gender with the experiences of being bullied and witnessing it. The result then showed that 51% of the men Survey respondents were either directly bullied or witnessed it, a higher rate than was true for women Survey respondents.

We investigated the interaction between gender pairs and the direct experience categories of currently bullied and having been bullied. A difference emerges between situations based on perpetrator gender. Only when the bully is male, do male targets report over three times the rate of being currently bullied relative to female targets (51% vs. 15%). Male targets are only half as likely to report having been bullied in the past as currently bullied (27% vs 51%). Female targets bullied by men are nearly three times as likely (39%) to have been bullied than to report being currently bullied.

The explanation might be twofold. First the fact than men report a higher current rate of bullying may be due to a willingness to “tough it out” and stay in abusive situations not wanting to allow the male bully to “win.” Perhaps this poses a challenge to American men’s “rugged individualism.” If stubbornness is not an explanation, than the pattern might be understood by saying that women targets are quicker to leave, or be forced out of, bullying situations when the bully is male. In those cross-gender pairings, women may have a legitimate sexual harassment complaint.

Regardless of the explanation it seems women report more historical bullying by men than men. Their memories may be more resistant to extinction.

The pattern does not occur when the perpetrator is female. However, when we sum over perpetrator gender, female targets still report a higher historical rate of bullying than their male counterparts. The higher frequency for historical bullying emerged for both men and women targets.


The final analysis of gender tells us that 77% of currently bullied targets are bullied by perpetrators of the same gender, ie., man-on-man and woman-on-woman.

Same gender bullying presents a challenge for targets who would like to file a claim of discrimination. With few exceptions (cases of explicit sexual coercion), sexual harassment requires that the perpetrator be a member of the opposite sex. In same sex cases the human resources department and most employment lawyers will describe the difficulty that same- gender harassment presents. Our 2014 findings show that in 30% of cases the bully was male and the target was female. A simplistic interpretation suggests that the target could claim sexual harassment. However, discrimination law requires that the target demonstrate that gender was the basis of the animus that the perpetrator held against the target.

Bullying is cruelty and much more frequently “status-blind.” In the 2007 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey, we asked a question about bullied targets’ membership in protected groups. That is, were targets protected by gender, race, age, disability, religion, or another class. The same was asked about perpetrators. In only 1 of 5 cases was the target the only one who enjoyed protected status. The remaining 80% of situations did not lend themselves to a simple violation of state or federal anti-discrimination laws.

The narrowly worded 2014 question that listed gender pairs did not address the fuller discriminatory nature of illegal harassment contained in the 2007 question. But, the 30% man-on-woman category closely approximated the 20% result in the 2007 survey. In conclusion, same gender pairings render complaints of illegality nearly impossible.


For each of the gender pairs we calculated the rates of job loss for both targets and perpetrators. Job loss percentages were derived from responses to a separate question (See What Stopped the Bullying) for which we summed quitting, termination, and constructive discharge as reasons for a loss.

The first observation is that targets lose their jobs at a much higher rate than perpetrators (82% vs. 18%). When bullies are men regardless of the targets gender the loss rate is equally high. However, when bullies are women, women targets lose their jobs 89% of the time. Notably women bullies, as perpetrators, suffer the highest job loss rate (30%) of any gender pairing.

Download the Gender mini-Report


Gary Namie, PhD, Research Director
Research Assistants: Daniel Christensen & David Phillips

© 2014, Workplace Bullying Institute, All Rights Reserved

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This entry was posted on Monday, April 21st, 2014 at 4:30 am and is filed under WBI Education, WBI Surveys & Studies. 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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