This continues my series researching the bullying of women By women in the work place. See my 2 posts to date: Bitch or Bully: The Pink Elephant and The Lipstick Jungle: Female Saboteurs
I originally set out to benchmark a client’s experience. If I had any preconceived notions, they were centred around bullying being a predominantly male activity and simply wanted to investigate corporate checks and balances, as well as any legal deterrents that dealt with this problem. I have to confess that I also secretly hoped to prove the findings of the New York Times wrong. Somewhat predictably, this sadly, was not to be. My in-box started filling up almost immediately. Broadly speaking the responses fell into 3 categories and can be paraphrased as follows:
- Well done Dorothy for highlighting a difficult and sensitive issue which we need to acknowledge and tackle on many levels
- What on earth are you thinking Dorothy? Don’t we women have enough obstacles to progression without you dredging up this sort of stuff?
- Heart breaking case studies, including what sounded like psychotic abuse in some instances, accompanied by pleas for support
As more and more women pursue professional careers (60% of European graduates are now female) I actually don’t think that this is a topic we can pretend doesn’t exist.
And it won’t go away on its own.
Annabel Kaye Managing Director or Irenicon Ltd UK tells me that victims of female bullying “leave and find another job without complaining at all. On average we find our ‘complainers’ turn out to be the sixth victim. Others come forward if our people are seen to be gaining ground. However many of our complainers settle quietly, signing ‘gagging clauses’ that mean they cannot testify if others come forward and the problem of bullying is buried once again beneath the surface … but the feeling is that it is healthier to move on rather than fight, which leaves systematic bullies and bullying institutions unchallenged and ready for their next crop of victims.
Are women more susceptible to bullying?
Sharon Eden contends “This is a far more complex situation than gender. Being susceptible to bullying also depends on psychological make-up and culture. People who are raised in families or from cultures where assertiveness is frowned on, and politeness and passivity valued, will be more at risk of being bullied in ‘Western type’ organisations.”
Anne Perschel told me “Boys in most cultures are raised with an expectation that they will be a physical aggressor or defender. This may be in the context of the hunt, an invasion or warding off intruders. Girls are not raised with such expectations. As children our play it is in large part, a rehearsal for future roles. Girls do not rehearse for aggression to the degree that boys do. So in grown up life, when a woman is bullied, she doesn’t have the response repertoire easily available. Bullies feed on this. I’ve seen it. When a bully is on the attack, if the victim backs up in fear, the bully keeps aggressing. There have also been suggestions that testosterone is associated with more risk-taking and aggressive behaviors, so it is possible that biology plays a role as well.”
However, it’s also about the organisational culture and what is perceived to be acceptable. My own experiences have been centred on men bullying men, but when that happened in all 3 cases the CEOs were themselves bullies and this modus operandi had become the corporate cultural norm.
Annabel reminds us that “Often the perpetrators are oblivious to their behaviour talking about ‘strong leadership’, ‘tough decisions’ when the reality is they demonstrate the opposite. A strong organisation can tackle these issues successfully – but the fish rots from the head and often it is the board themselves that initiate behaviours that stimulate and encourage bullying. The ‘strong’ thrive on challenge – but the ‘weak’ crumble.
All the commentators I consulted agreed without exception, that women in the workplace and in leadership positions, or en route, are in a double bind. As Anne suggests “Women are expected not to be aggressive. It’s okay and expected from men. If they lead with emotional and social intelligence, they don’t get as much credit or notice as do men. We expect women to be social, communal, nurturing and supportive of others. We don’t expect it so much from men, so when they behave accordingly, they are viewed as more extraordinary than a woman who exhibits these same behaviors”
Is it just me or is there something wrong with this picture?
- Women emulating assertive male behaviour for advancement in organisations are perceived negatively… and we talk about that.
- Women not emulating male behaviour, don’t advance, are again perceived negatively … but we talk about that too.
- Women advancing themselves via “mascara mafia” tactics are actually behaving negatively, very often go unchallenged and …we don’t talk about it very much at all!
Need to highlight
So no, I don’t think that highlighting an issue that negatively impacts women’s perceptions, performance and progression in the workplace should detract from any advances we would like to make in other areas. Neither should it draw attention away from the impact of any other barriers to progression. In the meantime, women slug it out in sub – board room roles, leading to high job turnover, reduced engagement as well as health issues.
Isn’t it understandable how lower level, lower paid, lower stress jobs become attractive options when women have to factor in family considerations? Where are the men in all of this? Well , they are still sitting pretty at the top. In these positions they will continue to define corporate norms and values and their criteria for what makes a good manager and leader will prevail. In the meantime, women will remain confused and disenchanted, below the glass ceiling.
But as in most cases women have to help themselves and each other to create more secure and meaningful professional lives and business environments, even if it means confronting and finding solutions to eliminate unacceptable behaviour within our own ranks, and putting our own “house” in order. Just as parents who find their teenager has lost his/her way or companies realise they have a product that tanked, it is not the end of the world as we know it. The instances of extreme dysfunctional abuse aside , it’s a problem that can be resolved. There are almost always solutions and we women have to find them.
Why? Because no one else is going to do it for us.
What do you think?
Dorothy, I am so glad you are raising this issue and keeping it before us. Bullying–by men and women–continues to be a fact of life in organizations. I have personally experienced it and witnessed it. Women continue to walk a fine line of acceptable behavior and are criticized for any deviation. I don’t know the solution. I believe coaching can help both the bully and the victim to examine their behavior and choose to act differently, but coaching is most effective when it’s part of a total systems change with positive and negative consequences.
Thanks Mary – one of the conclusions I’m reaching is that to reach their potential, women have to be taught early in their careers how to negotiate and communicate effectively and constructively. This will support them both as employees dealing with “tough” bosses ( either male or female) and as managers supervising teams. I would even like to see it in unviversity curricula. Combined with the right programmes and additional mentoring, I think we can coach this sort of negative behaviour perhaps not out of existence, but at least to reasonable levels, within half a generation.
Dorothy – You have taken on a tough topic and done it with just the right measures of grace and courage – a rare combination. Kudos. I am honored to have you as both a friend and colleague. I trust that many will benefit from what you’ve done in this series.
I also now have a wonderful new expression at my disposal, “A fish rots from the head.” I cannot begin to count the circumstances in which it will be relevant.
Thanks Anne your contribution has been invaluable. You have to thank Annabel for the fish rotting from the head expression! Very English ! Happy to share!
THOSE OF US THAT ARE OR HAVE BEEN VICTIMS OF BULLYING AND AN ABUSIVE WORK ENVIRONMENT ARE REPEATEDLY ABUSED BECAUSE OF STATEMENTS THAT ARE MADE BY PEOPLE WHO FORM OPINIONS BASED ON SOMETHING THEY READ IN A BOOK, MAGAZINE, OR NEWSPAPER ARTICLE. IT WOULD BE BENEFICIAL TO SPEAK WITH THOSE OF US THAT HAVE BEEN TRAUMATIZED BY THE ACTS OF OTHERS IN THE WORKPLACE. OUR CIVIL RIGHTS LAWS HAVE NOT ADDRESSED BULLYING SPECIFICALLY BECAUSE OF POLITICS. THE CEOS OF COMPANIES AND OUR POLITICIANS OFTEN HAVE BUSINESS RELATIONSHIPS, WHETHER IT’S THROUGH CAMPAIGN DONATIONS OR THE JOBS A CORPORATION HAS BROUGHT TO THE AREA. IN MY SITUATION THE CEO OF THE COMPANY I WORK FOR WAS THE HEAD OF THE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE FOR MANY YEARS.
Hi Emily – thanks for your comment. I’m sorry to hear about your circumstances. I have no doubt that there are high profile bullies who get away with it because of their status, connections or economic value to a community. The focus of my research is the grey area when poor managerial behaviour for one reason or another crosses the line and becomes bullying.
In the US I have been told, 13 states have bullying legislation pending, but harassment is legally defined and suggest you establish if your experiences meet those criteria. Keep a log of all incidents.
But I have been in contact with and contacted by large numbers of people since I opened up this can of worms. I have heard some horrendous stories of almost psychotic abuse by clearly dysfunctional individuals who traumatise thier victims. If this is happening to you I would seriously advise you to seek legal advice and some psychological and emotional support either through a bullying support group or one on one.
I wish you all luck.
I’m not a fan of bullies in any way shape or form. Regardless of gender. Regardless of social position.
As a naval officer of almost 20 years experience I work in a place that has been known to attract bullying leaders; it has to do with the hierarchical command structure I suspect.
To me, bullying is directly related to emotional intelligence. People who engage in activities deliberately designed to inflict physical or mental suffering on people lack the EQ to understand emotional pain beyond their own. These people will disagree with me. They will have all kinds of attribution errors to support their actions. “She just needed to be pushed to do better” “My team works better if I criticize them consistently” “I must be in charge – people don’t talk to me because of my commanding presence”
My point – an emotionally intelligent leader knows the difference between leadership presence and domination. We all learn by example, both good and bad. If we think of the leaders we know, the emotionally intelligent ones will stick out from the rest. Why? Because they made you want to perform and never once made you want to hide…
Great post. Keep ’em coming.
Thanks Landon for your comment and insights. I agree bullying from anyone, male or female, is abusive and unacceptable behaviour. I was just surprised that women are 2.5 times more likely to be bullied by another woman than a man. Hopefully if addressed correctly that statistic will be changed before too long
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