Mean girls, all grown up, now workplace bullies
They’re terrible and it’s not OK and there’s little legally to do about it
“This is a dirty secret, really,” said Karen McGee, a Denver women’s leadership coach who first became interested in woman on woman bullying in the workplace when members of her monthly roundtable began to raise the issue in their meetings.
“Addressing it seems to play into the stereotypes we wish to avoid,” she said. “If we talk about it openly, the fear is it will make us all look bad. And it does.”
She’s right. There’s something regressive and embarrassing about acknowledging the behavior of real-life dragon ladies who, more than a century after the dawn of the women’s movement, seem intent on sticking their stilettos in the eyes of their co-workers or subordinates. After all, there’s an unwritten code – or at least an expectation that the code exists – that women need to stick together in the office.
But the code is often broken when it comes to time for evaluations, promotions, and all manner of other ways workers can stab or get stabbed in the back.
Some women bosses feel pressure to demonstrate their toughness to male superiors by being especially, even unfairly, tough to women they manage. Some female managers may feel their battle to the top, characterized by unfair hurdles and expectations, made them the professional they are today and have no problem asking the women who follow them to succeed against similar odds.
On the flip side there’s also the subtle undermine, where women consistently hijack an employee’s personal life and time by assigning them projects on Friday afternoon and due Monday morning; ‘forgetting’ to include them in meetings, social business gatherings, email chains; speaking badly of them to colleagues until they are too isolated to ask for help.
Members of McGee’s group have labeled it as everything from a lack of support to all-out sabotage from female bosses and co-workers.
“Really the best catchphrase is bullying,” said McGee, who spoke on the issue Friday at Denver’s Women’s Leadership Roundtable.
There are statistics
“When a woman is a bully, which happens 38 percent of the time, she chooses a woman target 80 percent of the time,” explained Dr. Gary Namie, of the Workplace Bullying Institute, a Washington state think tank that conducted a nationwide survey on the issue in 2010.
The Institute found woman-woman bullying is on the rise and that targets of the bullying are just as unlikely to report the mistreatment as are victims of sexual assault.
“It’s because of the shame factor,” said Namie. “There’s a great deal of shame for an adult to admit they have been targeted for abuse and humiliation.”
There’s also often well-warranted fear.
“Seventy-two percent of bullies are bosses,” said Namie, adding that although most employees eventually resort to confrontation, it rarely works. In fact, 78 percent of bullied employees who come forward end up losing their jobs — they either quit, are ‘constructively discharged’, or outright fired.”
Unfortunately, laws designed to protect women in the workplace offer virtually no legal recourse for women being strong-armed by other women. Discrimination law, which according to the Institute, protects against only 20 percent of workplace bullying, is narrowly defined, often hinging on differences between aggressor and target — factors such as age, race or gender.
It doesn’t directly involve men and it’s not about sex
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for discouraging and prosecuting discrimination in the workplace, doesn’t prosecute same-sex bullying (unless it’s clear-cut sexual harassment). Further, the Commission doesn’t keep statistics on instances of woman-woman discrimination, or bullying more broadly.
“Let’s say a woman is bullying somebody because they’re Hispanic, that could fall under EEOC,” said Joseph Olivares, a public relations officer at the agency. But “if it’s because [ a woman] is not as attractive as other people, that would not fall under the laws the EEOC enforces.”
Rita Kittle, the supervising trial attorney for EEOC in Colorado, says the discrimination titles her team uses to launch prosecutions actually could cover some instances of woman-woman workplace bullying precisely because the conflicts pivot around gender.
“Just because it’s same-sex harassment doesn’t mean it’s not covered by Title VII” of the Civil Rights Act, she said. “Not meeting gender stereotypes is one form of that discrimination.”
Even so, Kittle admits, her department has never had a woman-woman case and the legal grounds could be tricky to establish — especially if there’s nothing in the aggression specifically tagged to sex or gender.
“There’s this magic gap in existing discrimination law that women bullies exploit,” said Namie, asserting that aggression against women by men, which would fall under Title VII, often fails to when both aggressor and target are women.
“That’s what creates the problem for the woman who is targeted,” he said. “She’s not going to be believed, the law doesn’t back her up, and … in the absence of law, companies don’t have to create good policies.”
For over a decade, Namie and his wife Ruth, also a psychologist and herself a target of workplace bullying by another woman, have lobbied for the Healthy Workplace Bill. Among other things, the measure would provide a precise, legal, definition of an “abusive work environment” while also requiring targets to demonstrate harm to their health.
“The research shows that bullying has tremendous health harms,” said Namie. “In the physical sense, there’s cardiovascular issues, ulcers, and colitis. Now we know that stress also changes the brain, affecting memory and ability to concentrate. The person who was falsely called stupid will be rendered or at least appear to be less competent over time … Then you have the psychological injuries: anxiety, depression, even PTSD.”
There’s no law; let’s make a law
The Healthy Workplace Bill has yet to gain traction in Colorado, though Namie says there are advocates pushing a grassroots effort to raise its profile nationwide.
“I was a victim of a woman bully, that’s how I got involved in the first place,” said Joyce Espinosa, one of the bill’s coordinators in Colorado. She added that, although many legislators and members of nonprofits are sympathetic, her group has essentially struck out when it comes to institutional or legislative support.
“It’s been really hard,” Espinosa said, noting that both she and her co-coördinator lost their jobs around incidents of bullying. They have been working on promoting this legislation while also reëstablishing their livelihoods.
Meanwhile, groups of women like those who attend McGee’s roundtables have taken it upon themselves to air some mean-girl laundry and strategize solutions.
One of the first steps to addressing women-bullying-women challenges, McGee suggested, was not to think of it solely as a “lady problem.”
“There’s a broader issue here,” she said. “What is it about the work environment that enables this behavior to continue unabated, that even encourages it?”
“Women either feel they must be, or actually are, in a position of competition instead of collaboration with other women.”
Namie agreed that larger systems are at play when it comes to women effectively rebuilding the glass ceiling below them.
“This kind of bullying runs counter to stereotype. The idea is that women leaders will all be more nurturing than males and everything will be wonderful,” he said. “But the record is clear, women are just as capable of being tyrannical as men. If the corporate structure rewards aggression, they will be aggressive.”
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