by Leslie Morgan Steiner
Do women bully differently than men?
Recalling the jungle of 7th grade girldom, I have to say YES. I remember the time two girls stuck deodorant, mouthwash and a nasty anonymous note in an awkward girl’s locker. Someone suggested a late-blooming girl (okay, me) use the boy’s bathroom. Another took over my boyfriend while I was away on spring break. And these girls were my friends. I was exceedingly glad to outgrow this phase of life.
So I was surprised by a recent New York Times article alleging that adult women bully other women at work more frequently than men do. According to “A Sisterhood of Workplace Infighting ”:
“A recent study by the Workplace Bullying Institute examining office behaviors – like verbal abuse, job sabotage, misuse of authority and destroying of relationships – found that female bullies aim at other women more than 70 percent of the time. Bullies who are men, by contrast, tend to be equal-opportunity tormentors when it comes to the gender of their target.”
Aside from the fact that this quote practically makes men sound like heroes for their “equal-opportunity” tormenting, I don’t find the 70% figure alarming or reason to suggest limits to female camaraderie at work. The article probes several possible explanations for the apparent weak links in the workplace sisterhood: women fear accusations of favoritism towards other women; women who got to the top on their own think other women should pull themselves up too; women haven’t learned healthy strategies for managing hostilities at work; women’s emotionalism means we can take workplace slights overly personally, etc.
Okay, fine. There is some truth in all of these explanations. But despite my adolescent experiences with mean girls, I don’t believe that most adult women – at work or anywhere else – consciously seek to destroy other women.
I pose another theory: the hallmark of any bully is they pick on someone weaker. Women are stereotypically weaker than men – politically, socially, physically – so naturally a female bully looking for a vulnerable target will find a larger pool among women, because the pool of subservient men is almost always far smaller. Maybe it’s just a simple numbers game here, rather than some subconscious societal sisterhood self-destruction at play.
In my experience at the academic and corporate playgrounds of Harvard, Wharton, Leo Burnett, Johnson & Johnson and The Washington Post, competitiveness was considered a normal, valuable human trait. Ambitious men and women aim to outperform our colleagues. Nothing personal, ladies and gents. We don’t expect men to cheerlead each other on Wall Street, the Nascar racetrack or the NBA. Why then do we find competitiveness suspect in women? How can we justify holding women to a more noble standard, accusing ourselves of being “our own worst enemy” when all we want to is to compete fairly?
Open competition between women often produces the most productive outcomes. Otherwise, women’s natural competitiveness tends to go underground, with ugly consequences (the mom who takes her daughter’s dance recital a tad too seriously, for instance, or the one who harangues another new mom for not breastfeeding). My business school class, with over 30% women, smiled on productive, open competition between women for grades, slots on recruiters interviewing lists, and the highest paying jobs. We could compete fiercely and openly with each other -- so we were also free to support one another. My final semester I suffered through an ugly, abusive divorce. No one spilled the sordid details to recruiters or professors; nasty gossip never got back to me. My female colleagues, who ostensibly stood to benefit from my misfortune in a survival of the fittest fashion, instead rallied to my defense again and again.
And since business school, I’ve had many life rafts thrown me by female colleagues: the human resources manager who approved my request to work at home two days a week so I could keep breastfeeding; the vice president in my department who broke company precedent by arranging for me to be the first executive to work part-time. I in turn helped my Latina secretary become a product manager and deep-sixed an outdated policy that denied saleswomen bonuses while they were on maternity leave. So I say the sisterhood at work can thrive – as long as the workplace environment recognizes and rewards women’s natural desire to compete and succeed.
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