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Mean Girls at Work: Why Professional Women Bully Each Other

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Comparison

Regina: Oh, my God! I love your skirt. Where did you get it?

Lea Edwards: It was my mom’s in the ’80s.

Regina: Vintage. So adorable.

Lea Edwards: Thanks.

Regina: [turns to Cady] That is the ugliest effing skirt I’ve ever seen.

The above line is from the classic and brilliant film Mean Girls, which celebrated its 10 year anniversary over the weekend, if you can believe it. The fake compliment was given by Regina George, a queen bee at her high school. She rules the social scene because she’s a brilliant war strategist. Seriously, General Patton has nothing on this girl. Everything looks effortless, but every move is actually calculated. And, though I would like to say this type of foul play only exists in high school and (wildly entertaining) movies, that is absolutely not true.

Woman-on-woman harassment is on the rise. Thirty-five percent of Americans reported being bullied at work, according to a 2010 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute. (Click here to tweet this stat.) Female bullies more frequently engaged in under-the-radar behaviors such as sabotage (53.7 percent of female vs. 39.9 percent of male bullies) and abuse of authority (50.2 percent vs. 44.7 percent), as compared to the more observable form of verbal abuse engaged in by more male than female bullies (at 57.5 and 47.1 percent, respectively).

Why are we picking on our kind?

Well, in some ways, it’s because we are our own worst enemies. One reason women choose other women as targets “is probably some idea that they can find a less confrontational person or someone less likely to respond to aggression with aggression,” said Gary Namie, research director for the Workplace Bullying Institute.

Women are not raised to be confrontational. They’re supposed to be the nurturing peacemakers. I am a classic example of this. If someone is arguing near me, I remove myself from the room. When the barista screws up my drink and spells my name wrong, I apologize for ordering an annoying drink (so, anything that isn’t black coffee) and that my name isn’t Bob. I don’t confront people. I wait until I get home and then talk about the person behind their back to anyone who will listen. I was raised right.

But women are seriously trying to take other women down in some ways because they are threatened by them. Washington Post journalist Selena Rezvani writes:

While workplace studies show women are routinely underestimated compared to men, we don’t give much credence to the fact that women hampering other women is also to blame…. Many of us have witnessed the man who comments on a woman’s hotness just as she leaves the room. But what about the woman who criticizes another’s appearance (“Did you see what she was wearing in there?”) or frowns on a woman’s unapologetic use of power (“Just who does she think she is?”)?

And, in a way, I think the woman who waits for the other woman to leave the room or tries to sabotage her very quietly is even scarier than the loud-mouthed confrontational lady. Think how scary Miranda Priestly was in The Devil Wears Prada. Her voice level was barely above a whisper, and she was absolutely terrifying. Women can be so sneaky. On an episode of the brilliant but short-lived series Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23, the naive June thought the only other girl on her investment bank team was trying to befriend her, but she was only finding out information about June to take her down later. It made for a hilarious episode, but in real life, that would not be so fun.

The repercussions

Now, this behavior is partly because it took women such a long time to make progress in the workplace, and we don’t want to go backwards, but this is really hurting us. According to Catalyst, women make up more than 50 percent of management, professional and related occupations but only 15.7 percent of Fortune 500 officers and 15.2 percent of directors. This lack of support is part of the problem.

According to new research, one of the major reasons we don’t see women being promoted is because women at higher levels don’t help other women get ahead. Women at the top experience something called “value threat,” which causes them to not want to help other women.

Michelle Duguid, PhD, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Olin Business School and author of Female Tokens in High-Prestige Work Groups: Catalysts or Inhibitors of Group Diversification?, identifies two forms of value threat she thinks affect the behavior of women in high-status work groups in the context of promotion and selection — competitive threat and collective threat.

“Competitive threat is the fear that a highly qualified female candidate might be more qualified, competent or accepted than you are,” Duguid writes. “Women also might be concerned about bringing in another woman with lower qualifications, who could reinforce negative stereotypes about women and impact others’ impressions of them. This is collective threat.”

Basically, we are still all in high school

The women’s bullying program is really due to our environment. A study from the Netherlands found that if a woman was in a sexist environment, she was far more likely to behave like an alpha female or queen bee. The woman would actually become more sexist than her male counterparts as a result.

“These women are concerned that if they are seen to be helping other women rise to the top or supporting other women in the workplace, they will be derided by the men at work, and will be seen as operating counter to the culture rather than acting like one of the boys,” according to research.

Rezvani says that women, especially those at the top levels in their careers, may be experiencing some sort of “sexism amnesia.” She writes, ”They may forget what it’s like to be junior, to have little sway, and to be underestimated as a young woman. When they finally do get to the top, they adopt the mindset of those around them and gloss over their past struggles. Even harsher is the sink-or-swim school of thought whose club motto is, ‘I was treated like dirt on my way up, so you should be too.’”

These women make Regina George sound like a day at the beach.

Ladies, have you experienced this at work? Do you agree with these findings?

Meredith Lepore is the former editor of the women’s career site The Grindstone. Before that, she was on staff at Wall Street Letter and Business Insider and was a contributing writer for LearnVest. She earned her Masters in Magazine, Newspaper and Online Journalism from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University after graduating with a degree in Brain and Cognitive Science from the University of Rochester. Meredith resides in New York full-time and enjoys reading, jogging, shopping and playing with her puppy, Otis.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • Julia

    I’m only 20 years old and still in college, yet I’m pretty sure I’ve already been bullied out of a position at an internship. Interesting how suddenly invested (and yet provide nothing useful)they get when they find out you’re interviewing at their place of work…

    • Aiyana B. Ela

      Aw that is too bad, bullied out of it why are bullies everywhere? I think my theory is correct when I say everyone’s a bastard

  • Guest

    …aaaaaaaaaand this is why I don’t leave my house and would rather telecommute than spend ONE SECOND in the social realm of the office. Add to that I don’t want to have to give the boss a BJ just to get a five-cent raise.

    Fuck people. Seriously, fuck the whole human race.

  • Marianne Stenger

    Very true! I’ve experienced this many times, and now have to make a concious effort not to allow myself to be drawn into the vicious cycle of sexism.

    It’s so silly how we tend to feel more threatened by other women than by men. As if there’s only so much room for women at the top, and we have to protect our spot. Things will never change if we don’t stop clinging to this short-sighted view.

  • Aiyana B. Ela

    Nah not really I don’t work with anyone at the moment i’m just learning from a distance everyone’s a bastard

    • Aiyana B. Ela

      I really am a distant learner too

  • vanessa

    I have seen a small petite woman been told by another woman she could not imagine her pregnant and did she have any would of photos of herself when she was. It was almost as if she wanted the lady in question to prove she was as much a woman as she was and probably would have bullied her more if she had photos. I thought it was very mean considering pregnancy is a tough process for anyones body.