Here’s a newsflash: we women aren’t always very nice to each other. From our insecurities about our imperfections, to our competitive drive and anxieties over not measuring up, we can be total bitches to one another. A recent article in the Times suggests that this mean-girl mentality is the pink elephant in the workplace that no one dares talk about. “Despite all the money spent annually on women’s leadership conferences and professional development programs, you’d be hard-pressed to find a workshop on women mistreating one another at work,” Peggy Klaus writes, adding: “Instead of helping to build one another’s careers, [women] sometimes derail them — for example, by limiting access to important meetings and committees; withholding information, assignments and promotions; or blocking the way to mentors and higher-ups.” If these scenarios sound familiar — and they certainly do to me — you aren’t alone. A recent study by the Workplace Bullying Institute examining this kind of office behavior found that “female bullies aim at other women more than 70 percent of the time.” While Klaus theorizes on the different reasons women undermine each other — there are too few spots at the top and women in senior positions don’t want to help anyone who may replace them, they’re afraid of showing favoritism to other women, they’re hyperemotional and hold personal grudges when they feel they’ve been challenged of criticized — another article about “bitch bullies” in middle school suggests a different theory. In The Independent, Kate Figes argues that girls grow up with the expectation that they are to look good and be good. They’re expected to be “kinder, more supportive and enabling of others. But [they’re] human too, and with too much self-sacrifice resentment flourishes that cannot be expressed – because “good” girls don’t get angry.” She says that by “bitch bullying,” girls can “express all their anger, insecurities and unhappiness at growing up, but in veiled ways.” Feges argues women are afraid of confrontation and because of this they harbor resentment, often for years.
So the theory is we grow up with that resentment — resentment over every hurt, insult, and criticism — and we take it with us to the workplace. For the most part I agree with this theory, as well as the theories Klaus outlined in the Times article. I think a lot of the bitchy behavior women exhibit at work is misplaced emotion. I agree that we’re hypersensitive, as has been suggested, and that we take constructive criticism personally and hold onto grudges, and I think we absolutely are competitive and guard our “prizes,” whether they be a higher rung on the ladder or some other way of measuring our success, very protectively. But I also think some of us are bitches simply because it makes us feel better about ourselves.
It was about six months into my first post-college job before I realized this latter point. I was a copywriter at a large radio station in southwest Missouri and about 15 years younger than most of the other women in the office. Unlike a majority of my female colleagues who grew up in small, rural towns, I was 22, bright-eyed and fresh-faced, had a college degree, was well-traveled (I grew up in 4 different countries on 3 different continents), and wasn’t saddled with a husband, children, mortgage, car payment, credit card debt or any health problems. In short, I think to some of the women I worked with I represented lost opportunities and fading youth and they hated me for it. The hated me so much, in fact, that they did everything they could to make my life — at least my life between the hours of 9-5 — a living hell. They bullied me in practically every way imaginable until I was so traumatized by the whole ordeal, I walked out of the job one afternoon and never returned.
In the weeks and months that followed, I thought a lot about those women and the experiences that contributed to their bitchy behavior. I wondered if and how their treatment of me elevated their perception of themselves and each other. Luckily, not all the women I worked with horrible to me. There were two or three ladies who were mercifully kind, who took me under their protective wings and assured me I didn’t deserve the nasty behavior I endured. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that those women — the kind ones — happened to be happy, confident women with a strong sense of themselves. They didn’t need to put anyone else down to feel better about who and where they were in life, and their self-identities certainly weren’t threatened by someone like me.
While Paula Klaus suggests that women’s leadership conferences and professional development programs should include workshops on women mistreating one another at work, I’d like to add they should also include workshops on building self-confidence and channeling jealousy in more productive ways than being bitchy to those we feel threatened by. [NYTimes and Independent.co.uk]