May 13, 2009

Women Who Bully Women

A very interesting article in the New York Times this weekend addressed the common -- but not often discussed -- problem of women, particularly those in management positions, bullying other women. (It's called "Backlash: Women Bullying Women at Work," by Mickey Meece.) A survey cited in the article says that 40% of workplace bullies are women. And women are much more likely to bully other women; men who misbehave apparently tend to be equal opportunity bullies.

I'm sad to say that these facts don't surprise me. I've been lucky enough to have some wonderful managers of both genders in my career, but I've also seen -- and heard about -- really atrocious behavior by women, particularly towards female subordinates, and particularly towards the lowest on the office totem pole: secretaries, receptionists, and so on. In the schoolyard, bullying connotes someone who has more power picking on someone who has less -- often, the bigger kids picking on the smaller, or the popular kids picking on those who are less so. The female workplace bullying I've witnessed has taken a similar form: Someone with much more power, a much higher salary, and more privilege picking on someone with no power, living paycheck to paycheck, and stuck in that job.

The article points out a few possible reasons for female bullying. Some women have had to work very hard to climb the corporate ladder, and may have come to rely on more aggressive, competitive behavior. Perhaps women are being held to gender-based stereotypes (that they should be nurturing and sensitive rather than assertive). I would add a couple of others I've heard: Women who've had to be tough to get ahead want other women to toughen up, too, and to realize that they have to do their best in order to succeed. Some women also see bullying as a gender equality issue, raising arguments like, "No one would ever question a man who treated his secretary the way I treat mine."

Arguments like these ring fairly hollow to me. Gender discrimination and gender stereotyping certainly exist, and male and female managers are often held to different standards. But that's no reason to mistreat subordinates. The real gender equality issue here has to do with the victims of workplace bullying, not the perpetrators. Companies in which managers -- of either gender -- disproportionately focus their abuse on female employees are vulnerable to charges of sex-based harassment or sex discrimination. It doesn't matter if the manager is trying to toughen up female subordinates, defying gender-based stereotypes, or just being a jerk.