bitch or bully

Bitch or Bully: The Pink Elephant

Bitch or bully? It can be a fine line

Part I of 5 in my series on bullying by women in the work place. Starting with Bitch or Bully?

I am exploring a number of complex and often confusingly over lapping issues. I have consulted a global network of HR professionals, lawyers, bullying specialists, psychologists as well as executive coaches and leaders. I have also heard from ” targets”  themselves.

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a client. I’ll call her Jane. She was struggling to have a successful and equable working relationship with her new boss of 9 months. Her husband thought she needed to “step up , toughen up and be more assertive”. Whatever was going on was impacting her negatively. She felt she was wearing the departmental scarlet letter, sleeping badly, starting to dread going into work and feeling distanced from her colleagues.

Not only did she feel that she was being singled out for exceptional treatment, but that she was being openly bullied. What had surprised Jane the most in the whole process was that her new boss was a woman.

Double bind

We also have to factor in that we have stereotyped notions of how women are expected to behave that puts women in a double bind. They are supposed to be more passive and collaborative and when they do step up and become assertive they are accused of being bullies.  We are far more tolerant of dynamic behaviour from men and don’t receive it as being negative, but as “leader-like.”

A can of worms

For me this opened a mental can of worms. What exactly is bullying? Did I really know? When does strong management and bitchiness cross the line into tyranny? How prevalent is the issue of bullying by women? Do we really sweep it under the carpet? Is this issue the pink elephant in our sitting rooms that we don’t talk about?

In my own career I have worked in environments where I have witnessed bullying of the most appalling nature both physical and psychological, so I thought I knew what it was. In one extreme case it led to a complete nervous breakdown, in the other chronic depression leading to heavy drinking and marital breakdown. I have a family member who actually received a written death threat from a senior manager. In many of our minds it’s associated with raging, verbal and physical abuse, Machiavellian sabotaging and back stabbing. I have never been in a situation where the perpetrator was a woman. So where are all those soft skills, empathy and high EQ that we are supposed to have and read about?

Jane’s story she was:

  • regularly singled out for public criticism about her work and appearance
  • frequently called into bosses office at 17.20 to be given additional work with tight deadlines
  •  excluded from email circulation lists and meetings
  • the only person in the department not invited to a social event at boss’ house
  • fobbed off when she made attempts to discuss this with her manager had been dismissed with contempt
  • told by the HR department  that they would only get involved if a formal complaint was made

So what is bullying really?

Annabel Kay of Irenicon offersthis legal input about the UK legal system “Interestingly at the moment there is no actual legal definition in terms of a statute defining it, the ACAS code and case law provide a guide (common law) – but that is it. “

Another lawyer in the US confirmed this “although harassment has a clear legal definition, bullying does not, only guidelines”.

Constant humiliation

Jane Perdue suggests that “Bullying is behavioral based actions that repeatedly humiliate, intimidate, frighten, offend someone, making them feel defenseless, particularly coming from a person in position of authority or with much influence . Acts/behaviors can be overt or covert such as personal attacks or social ostracism. In my view bitchiness crosses the line when it’s repeated, takes on notes of intimidation & becomes a believable threat, particularly from a woman

Annabel goes on to add that “The real problem in dealing with bullying in the workplace is that by the time the ‘victim’ feels desperate enough to complain, they are in no fit state to endure the rigours of formal grievance hearings and appeals and possibly employment tribunals .”

A Poll

The New York Times says that today 70% of cases of women reporting being bullied was by other women. This seemed incredibly high and feeling loyal to the sisterhood, I decided to conduct my own poll on LinkedIn. Have you ever been bullied in the workplace by a woman? Please take a few seconds to participate and read the results to date. It will be open until the end of the April.

Within 24 hours I had over 100 responses and my mail box flooded with stories, insights and perceptions, too many to cover here on the whole issue of female bullying.

In the meantime I am going to collate all the comments and feedback. I have invited leadership specialists, HR practitioners and communication experts to contribute their views over the next few weeks. Here are just a few of your thoughts that have been tossed out to me:

  • If someone feels bullied – does that mean they are, or just being sensitive?
  • When does strong or tough management cross the line into intimidation?
  • Do women feel they have to act like men in en route, to leadership positions?
  • Do reports expect female managers to behave differently?
  • Why do women sabotage other women?
  • Are women easier to bully than men?
  • What should the role of HR be in dealing with issues such as this?
  • When does passivity become enabling?

In case you think I’ve forgotten about Jane, this process is ongoing.

What do you think? Workplace bitch or bully? Or are they one and the same?

Part 2: The Lipstick Jungle: Female Saboteurs 

Part 3:  The Mascara Mafia   

Part 4: The Petticoat Polemic: the role of the organisation

Part 5: Whatever happened to Jane?

18 thoughts on “Bitch or Bully: The Pink Elephant

  1. Marion Chapsal

    Excellent post Dorothy , however very depressing to face the brutal facts & figures.
    3 thoughts:

    1)I have seen bullying at work, both from men and women. I’ve recently coached a brilliant Gen Y woman executive, bullied by her male baby boomer, and silently and cowardly excluded by other female co-workers. In this case, there was a clear link between competition between females in a patriarchal organization where power is achieved with the survival of the fittest.

    2) The Corporate World, based on competition, IS a cruel and dangerous game for those who don’t know the rules. See Gail Evans in Play like a Man, Win like a Woman.
    Men get bullied too, sure! They just call it differently (like the virile tackle at football!)
    Maybe men learn better and earlier how to separate professional from personal bullying, how to say no, how to ask and give feedback. Women may wait a little longer before they decide to react and defend themselves.

    3) In a collaborative system, where cooperation would be fostered, both for men and women, women wouldn’t have to tear each other’s hair out!
    I have written about this topic here
    I strongly believe we can build on cooperation, networking and mentoring between women at the workplace and it works best when women are from different age groups, generations.
    Ok, because today I became a Grand Ma at 47, I realize how wonderful it is to bond across generations.
    Maybe it’s the key to cooperation and peace among women?

  2. Sharon Eden

    Superb post, Dorothy!

    Even overt bullying is swept under the carpet in many organisations… it’s a hot potato management runs from picking up! My hypothesis about that is a bully stimulates ‘fear of the bully’ in everyone and, as long as their targetting some-one else, ‘I’m OK’.

    I mention this in my upcoming book about purpose, passion and power in the workplace.

    Delighted you’re tackling this issue… and look forward to updates.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Sharon – one of the bullying tactics I have just discussed with Mara
      Pearson is that of isolation to set up the ” sacrificial lamb” as a deterrent to the rest of a group. Mara is going to amplify that point.

  3. Mary Pearson

    Excellent blog Dorothy. It’s an issue that badly needs discussion and resolution. Re the isolation of a single victim, it’s a bit like a terrorist act. The abuser wants the abuse of a singled out victim to be witnessed by others. That keeps the larger group under control. I’ll elaborate on this further later.

  4. Gwyn Teatro

    In my experience women who target, intimidate and browbeat others are more often called “bitches” than “bullies” but whatever you call it, I don’t think there’s an argument anywhere that can support that kind of behaviour.
    However, the women I have observed engaging in this kind of tyranny have also been on the receiving end of it at some point so perhaps for some, it is a case of “kicking the cat” and as long as the larger organization is willing to tolerate it, this kind of behaviour will continue to “run downstream”.

    This is a great post Dorothy, and a topic that is vitally important, not just to women but to everyone who goes to work with the reasonable expectation of being treated with respect when they get there.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Gwyn. I have had lots of mails from women who have been in this situation and one of the most difficult things that they struggle is feeling isolated and what the perceive to be the passivity of the HR function. If the female manager is producing results their methods are not queried. Would love an HR response to this one!

  5. Susan Mazza

    This is such an important topic Dorothy and I really appreciate you taking it head on.

    Whatever the label I think a the moment someone with power over another intentionally diminishes and/or threatens to use their power to the detriment of another, they have become a bully.

    While being managed by someone who is bitchy or bossy or a bad manager can be unpleasant, we get to choose how we will let it affect us, hard as that might be sometimes. In fact some people don’t mind bitchy or bossy at all – it has little affect on them personally. But if it does affect you in a negative way, you can choose to “be” a victim of their behavior or do something to affect your situation. But when you are being bullied you face consequences that you have no control over – you are being victimized.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Susan – the results of the poll are interesting. Annabel Kaye mentions that by the time the individuals are ready to complain, theyare so worn down by the bullying process that they can’t face the greviance procedure.And so the bully is allowed to continue!

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  11. Amy W

    I don’t think a survey on line gives accurate statistics. Someone who has been bullied is more likely to respond than someone who has not.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Amy – Thanks for your comment. I agree that there is a subjective need to participate in surveys because of personal experience. It was also mentioned that men can be more resilient to certain situations than women (Jane’s husband’s position for example) which is why they don’t report cases. However, in my survey a high percentage had witnessed rather than experieced bullying of women by another woman. I also received enough mail and spoke to a huge number of experts to say that women bullying other women in the workplace is higher than we would like to believe.

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