The Lipstick Jungle: Female saboteurs

Bullying by Women in the Workplace – Part 

The sabotaging of women BY women. As part of my series of bullying by women in the work place started in “Bitch or Bully: The Pink Elephant” Now we are looking at female saboteurs.

Complex and confusing 

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. My LinkedIn poll  “Have you experienced bullying in the workplace by a woman?” is still running. Please take it if you haven’t already! Interestingly, although the numbers have been slowly climbing, the percentage analysis has remained consistent. 51% of those polled claim they have personally been bullied by a woman and 25% indicate that they have witnessed it.

These figures reflect all the statistics I have seen elsewhere, dashing my hopes once and for all of disproving their theories. It would seem that despite the increasing number of females in the workplace, many statistics suggest that the business environment has become potentially a more hostile place for many women.

How could this be?

Isabella Lenarduzzi , the founder of Blog Jump, a Belgian organisation for the advancement of women in the workplace makes this comment:

Studies have shown that relationships can either be the best or the worst thing to happen to women at work: women have a greater capacity than men to affect one another’s professional performance–with better results for all if their interaction is good, and worse results if it is not.”

So what happens when interaction is not good?

Research also shows that women bully other women 2.5 times more frequently than they target men. The bullying weapons of choice  in the arsenal of female saboteurs tend to be more subtle and the abuse of authority, carried out covertly and/or behind closed doors. Women are apparently also more likely to elicit the support of other women, either tacitly or actively, isolating the victim. This leads tp the creation of a “mascara mafia”, adding further to her distress and feelings of alienation.

So our WMD are vocabulary, body language, voice tone, isolation, humiliation and unreasonable or inappropriate demands. You might remember the experiences of my client Jane. Her case it seems is classic text-book and could be taken straight from the syllabus for Bullying 101. The irony is therefore not only are we more likely to be bullied by a man, women are also out ranking men in the harassment of their own gender

Silent Epidemic

This type of bullying, known by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization as the “silent epidemic,” is four times more prevalent than illegal, discriminatory harassment.  Because this type of activity is not illegal, even when complaints are made, HR departments or employers are reluctant to pursue the perpetrator. Very often they know what is going on, but choose to ignore it.

Female bullying is usually more covert and does not involve physically abusive. This is no less damaging, but more difficult to audit and also to prove. Very often (as in Jane’s case) it is accompanied by unsupportive comments about a need to be less sensitive and more assertive. Annabel Kaye Managing Director of UK law firm Irenicon asserts that it can take up to six complaints about the same person to instigate an investigation.

Why do we women sabotage each other?

So one bemused question has popped up throughout this research: Isn’t life tough enough for us you ask? Sharon Eden offers one explanation:

Sociological research has indicated it seems to be a biological imperative that women compete for the ‘best’ male so that their offspring are more likely to survive. This spills over into the executive suite where men still predominate and some psychologically unaware women wipe out the female ‘opposition’ for male attention

So at some primal sub-conscious level in our lipstick jungle, it would appear that we are clearly brushing down our business suits and sharpening our French manicures in order to compete for the attention of the best males, by annihilating any actual or perceived threats …anyway we can. As these men tend to be found at the top of the pyramid the “battle” intensifies.

Research on bully behaviour and harassment at the Workplace Bullying Institute also suggests that regardless of gender, bullying is deeply rooted in insecurity resulting in a need for power and control, with the perpetrator seeking out a perceived weaker employee to dominate. This process actually makes the bully feel better about themselves.

It’s about power and control 

Mary Pearson, who has been writing about bullying for a number of years elaborates “A workplace bully, whether male or female, ensures their intimidation tactics are witnessed. They gain control over a larger group by isolating and victimizing one or two people, more brutally than others. It’s a similar tactic to what a terrorist uses instilling fear in a community through picking a single victim”.

But can it also be that in our desire to get to the top the communication style of women is misunderstood? Can our attempts at being tough turn into bullying? Perhaps we are we caught between the gender stereotyping equivalent of a rock and a hard place. Damned if we do. Damned if we don’t

Isabella suggests “Women in leadership positions find themselves with an identity dilemma: if they act like a typical male leader, they are perceived as ‘hard’ or ‘cold’, because their behaviour jars with that of the stereotypical woman

Many just give up

Although this goes someway to explaining some aspects of the problem, the “hard ” approach of mimicking male behaviour, it doesn’t cover the type of pernicious and inexplicable treatment that Jane and so many others experience. As Annabel Kayesuggested in my last post, many victims are so ground down, they simply resign.

So while we women bleat endlessly about glass ceilings, timidity at the negotiating table, and under representation in a corporate world, there seems to be very strong indications that in many cases we are actually our own worst enemies. The concentration of females in the corporate population hovers below board level. While there are obviously other legitimate factors preventing advancement, it would seem that part of this blockage is that many women directly sabotage their female colleagues or subordinates and therefore ultimately themselves.

At some point we have to take responsibility for this. The question is how.

What do you think?

Get in touch if you need help dealing with workplace bullying.

24 thoughts on “The Lipstick Jungle: Female saboteurs

  1. Carlyn Filio

    I think that workplace bullying has got to stop. There has got to be a way to stop these people from bullying others, so we can have harmony in the work place. Being a victim of workplace bullying myself, I find myself being criticized everyday when I didn’t even do anything wrong. I have been working for Food Services for the San Diego Unified School district for six years, and I know what I am doing. I have been doing the things I have been taught and yet I get criticized for what I am doing and its not wrong. So for me, this kind of treatment has got to stop. We don’t need this in the workplace at all.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Carlyn I’m sorry to hear about your situation. My suggestion would be to find someone who could support you in this process of dealing with this criticisim and the person who is doing it. Good luck.

  2. Gwyn Teatro

    Hi Dorothy,

    Wow, This feels really discouraging but, I suspect that your findings do not come as any big surprise to any of us.

    Your research and your posts have illuminated something I think we have always known. Women can be cruel to each other. And yet I think in many ways, we have chosen to block it out and at times pretend that the problems it creates are a result of something, or someone, else

    You’re right. We have to start taking responsibility. Maybe that begins with being more vocal about the problem; acknowledging that it exists but refusing to put up with it. Not sure.

    The work you have done here is important, and brave and a really solid beginning for those of us who would see us being kinder to each other.
    Thank you

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Gwyn – thanks for your comment. My findings did actually come as a surprise to me! I had no idea this was the case. I thought bullying was something male bosses did and girls grew out of it in school.

      I think if this situation is universally and openly acknowledged amongst women only then will there will be any sort of change. There is obviously a prevelance of this sort of behaviour, which I think goes beyond meanness. One source I read suggested that women are less used to team playing than men, so the concept of “one winning, all winning” is unfamiliar to them.

      Perhaps organisations need to accept that in all female teams there is a strong possibility that bullying may occur and set up mentoring, coaching or team training and communication programmes specifically to deal with this problem. Currently, the tendency is to ignore it until the victim leaves or files a complaint. That’s not good for business or women in the workplace.

  3. Marion Chapsal

    What strikes me in your post, Dorothy, is the immense capacity of women to influence one another, for the worse or the best.
    You open our eyes to a cruel reality and we need that.
    You have researched and analyzed several reasons, from biological to cultural and sociological, and they all make sense.
    I especially like Sharon’s explanation and your talent in producing such an attractive tittle!

    However, we need to be cautious and not underestimate other factors, very real, in preventing women’s advancement.
    Or the risk would be to blame women to be responsible for their own condition, and do nothing to change the work place inegalities in terms of wages and advancement.
    What’s the solution to violence and abuse?
    If the source of bullying is “deeply rooted in insecurity resulting in a need for power and control”, then the solution might be to give support and guidance to let go of this fear and insecurity.
    Not only to high potential executive women, high achievers, but to every woman, no matter her age, social class, education background, nationality, sector of activity.
    What’s my take on this?
    We need to develop role models and mentoring for women and girls.
    Have you heard of Wing to Wing?
    It’s a women’s networking project: How to become a volunteer mentor and help women take flight.
    It was founded by Lisa Quest, who has been a Hot Mommas Finalist in 2010 Global Case Competition.
    You are right, Dorothy, silent must be broken and women need to be encouraged to cooperate and mentor each other.
    As long as we focus on a traditionally male representation of power: the capacity to conquer and subordinate everything, the myth of the leader as the Super Hero, we will find women ready to obey and play these rules, becoming themselves slaves.
    Power (and Leadership)is something that need to be re invented, with the feminine dimension freely flowing in.
    As you said, women can become their worst enemies, but with a little help, they can raise on each other’s shoulders and reach for the sky.
    What’s the definition of a mentor?
    – a responsible and caring friend
    – a role model
    – an advocate
    – a nurturer of possibilities
    You and your readers can download plenty of free resources about mentoring on Wing to Wing ‘s site or on The Hot Mommas Project

    Bullying comes from fear and lack of self-confidence.
    Let’s spread confidence and nurture feminine power and open our wings 🙂

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Marion for your thought provoking input. I will reference it in my future posts if I may.

      When I started this exercise I was simply trying to benchmark a client’s experience and inform myself. I thought bullying was the preserve of men, associated in my mind and experience with physical and verbal abuse of the raging kind and that women left the ” mascara mafia ” type activities behind them in high school. But it seems I was wrong.

      I wanted to find out what is the legal definition of bullying and when does bitchiness cross the line? Answer: There isn’t one, only guidelines and it is all a murky grey area. What are the corporate checks and balances to deal with these instances? Answer: if they exist it seems that they are rarely invoked and victims simply resign. My mail box is full of instances of both men and women who complain that they have been bullied by a woman. Truthfully I was shocked.

      I am in no way suggesting that this is the sole barrier to women advancing professionally – simply that it is an issue that should be looked at by women’s groups, leadership coaches and HR departments. As a starting point it should be something that needs to be openly recognised and discussed.

      You did just that. Your proposals are excellent. Milles mercis!

  4. Wendy Mason

    Thanks Dorothy for the useful and informative work you have done to raise this as an issue!

    Thinking back to the examples I saw in a long public sector career, the comments made by both Sharon and Isabella are resonant. I believe a lack of role models means we can be confused about how to balance authority and accountability in the leadership role with inclusivity and consensus. And the reality is that many of us do feel insecure particularly about how to balance the demands of personal relationships. home and family with work. We want to be successful leaders but we want to be valued and respected as women at the same time.

    We have grown up in a culture where women are still judged significantly on how they look – that is a reality! So you are in a ‘position of power’ and trying very hard to not to deal in that kind of currency! Then suddenly you find yourself feeling you need to ‘compete’ with a younger and prettier but much more junior colleague. Among other things, it is humiliating. When you are feeling confident you deal with it by recognising it for what it is, laughing at yourself and moving on. When you are feeling vulnerable, you might behave in a much less constructive way.

    I am sure that the positive things we can do are to be honest about what we see and feel (and your work is a huge contribution to that) and to strengthen ourselves and and the young women coming through in the way Marion suggests –

    ‘Let’s spread confidence and nurture feminine power and open our wings . ‘

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Wendy – thanks for your input. Ther are many complex factors at play and I have had some interesting response to this research . I will share more on the debate next week!

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  10. Tammy

    Thank you Dorothy for posting.
    I am going to a meeting this afternoon with two women I supervise, they have talked with my supervisor while I was on vacation and made accusations against me. Telling him I am difficult to work with. They also arranged for a former employee who quit to go in and complain (the reason she quit was she was going to go to school, I accepted her resignation and then after the two weeks were over and she found out she didn’t get into school, she wanted her job back. I did not hire her back since I hired her replacement). The other two women thought I was unfair, and should have hired her back.
    I admit, I dislike confrontation and have tried to avoid it; but have had multiple meetings with them and have made changes in the way everyone I supervise communicates to each other (or have tried). If someone has a complaint against another co-worker they are to go to that co-worker and not talk about them to another co-worker. If a co-worker is approached and someone starts a conversation against someone else, they have the responsibility to stop the conversation and tell them they need to discuss it with the person they are talking about.
    The two other women and I have had two meetings before to discuss some issues, mainly about this style of communication and their frustrations with their pay. I worked on their behalf for increase in pay and benefits, but it was not my decision to make; and they were not given everything (benefits) that they wanted.
    They went to my supervisor and complained I was difficult to work with, and they had two meeting with me to discuss the difficulties and nothing has changed. When in fact, I made the above changes, due to back-biting and gossip.
    I have had to correct both of them, one more than the other about the gossiping, but I thought the conversations went well.
    My hope is I will not lose control of my emotions, and not cry. I had actually thought that the last few months have been going better and that all of the negative talk had decreased. I ask at the end of every weekly meeting if there is anything that I can do, that we need to talk about, and have not heard anything. I just didn’t realize, it didn’t stop, I became the focus of it.

    1. Janet

      Thanks for an interesting article. I think that horizontal violence (the term I learned in 2000 for what is now being called bullying) is and will continue to be prevalent in any organization where there is a lack of balance between male and female leaders, where women are expected to act like men in the workplace rather than like women, and where a lack of leadership education, emotional intelligence, and self esteem exists amongst female colleagues.

      I can’t say that I’ve ever been bullied in the office, but I certainly know what it feels like to have a direct report covertly try to bash me to make me look bad, sabotage me, and get others against me. Was this bullying? I don’t think so. I’m a pretty strong personality with strong self-esteem and feel that I can defend my self. Does that mean bullying doesn’t exist? Of course not.

      One of your articles really hit me however. What is one person’s perception of bullying (ie: a manager provides feedback to an employee and is told she is bullying). What protection is there for a manager in any work place if the employee can simply claim bullying? I don’t have any answers but as a manager of 15 people in a large male-dominated company I strive to not be like a man or a woman in my staff interactions but simply act like a good leader, teaching my staff about Emotional Intelligence, office place behavior, what feedback should look like (ie: never in an email, always in person, and well documented), and that open communication is at the heart of any good relationship (ie: boss to employee).

      I am going to use this as a topic for my next staff meeting because I find it to be very interesting. Thank you for enlightening me.

      1. Dorothy Dalton Post author

        Thanks for your comment Janet – your experience of a report leading a covert campaign to undermine you is called “mobbing”

        I think there are lots of factors involved in women bullying others. It’s a power play and can take place outside the workplace and in female only environments. It’s important that when it is experienced to be thorough with the checks. The fact that someone experiences something as bullying doesn’t necessarily make it so. We see this especially in the delivery of negative feedback.

        I would like to see more corporate training on constructive communication.

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  14. auspiciousbunny

    ” Sociological research has indicated it seems to be a biological imperative that women compete for the ‘best’ male so that their offspring are more likely to survive. This spills over into the executive suite where men still predominate and some psychologically unaware women wipe out the female ‘opposition’ for male attention”

    i am living proof that this is a biased and unfounded theory. I was socialized in an environment where the men were hostile and abusive to women. As I grew up I was different than my female peers in that I had very little interest in competing for “biological” imperatives of obtaining the best male. I had learned at a young age that the men around me were not my friends and I did not want to compete for boys when I reached adolescence. In fact, I spent the whole of my teenage years wondering why the girls around me were destroying each other to compete for boys I saw as either untrustworthy or just lame.

    When I grew up a little, I found I knew guys who I could trust and even love (albeit I also learned there are not that many truly trustworthy people in either gender!) However, I had a much more measured approach to dating and men due to my childhood upbringing. I regarded every situation with analysis before jumping into anything. I have never had a desire to sabotage another woman in order to compete for a man or for power over her. I think it is our culture that is sick.

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