In December 2008, when I was writing a commentary for the New York Times on how women often mistreat each other in the workplace, I wondered if I'd be hung in effigy for identifying this "pink elephant in the room." But when my piece appeared, instead of being skewered for setting feminism back 50 years, "A Sisterhood of Workplace Infighting" received an avalanche of responses, almost entirely in support, as it spread through the blogosphere like wildfire. All of this interest prompted the Times to take a deeper look at the subject, publishing just a few months later a follow-up piece by Mickey Meece entitled "Backlash: Women Bullying Women at Work." My intent in writing the commentary was to increase awareness and begin a dialogue about the problem of women undermining each other at work. With that in mind, and in the spirit of open debate, I'd like to also address the few critical comments that followed:
This is a conspiracy. Apparently, two articles on the problem in the span of four months provoked some bloggers into imagining that the newspaper had a master plan to undermine women's hard-earned success and blame the victim. The truth was far simpler. Women just wanted to talk about being mistreated by other women in the workplace and what they could do to change things. That's all! And, the only plan I or anyone else had in mind was to put this problem on the table where it could be thoughtfully considered and dealt with. Indeed, while reading the resulting comments from women around the world, it became clear that the complexity of their experience demands more than a post-feminist, happy-face kumbaya.
Focusing on this problem deflects attention from more important problems for women such as unequal pay or lack of adequate childcare. Of course these and other serious issues need to be addressed. But that fact should not preclude us from discussing other challenging areas for women so we can continue to improve our working lives.
The majority of successful business women can point to a female mentor or network that helped her break-through to success. Yes, thankfully, many can -- including me. But often, sometimes even in the same breath, they will also share stories of being undermined by their female colleagues.
It's all anecdotal! There is no hard research to prove that women mistreating women at work is a real problem. To my knowledge, no comprehensive research has been conducted that tackles this issue head on. The survey from the Workplace Bullying Institute -- cited in both articles -- while only examining bullying, does begin to shine light on the problem with its finding that females "prefer to bully other women 2.5 times more frequently than they target men." Whatever the case or cause, one thing is for certain from the comments I received and those posted elsewhere on the Internet: Trying to re-frame, minimize, or otherwise sugar-coat the issue doesn't fly because it ignores the real experiences of so many women. Speaking of which...
This is not the experience of all women. I don't claim that being mistreated on the job by other women is universal. Yet, as a workplace and leadership practitioner for over 15 years -- having coached women one-on-one and encountered thousands more at leadership conferences -- the frequency at which I hear this kind of war story from women across all professions, career levels, and ages suggested that the issue affects a lot of people. Ultimately, I took the plunge on this issue because enough women had given me an earful on the topic over the years that I thought it was worthy of a frank discussion.
Peggy Klaus coaches executives and leads corporate training programs. She is the author of BRAG! and The Hard Truth About Soft Skills: Workplace Lessons Smart People Wish They'd Learned Sooner. www.peggyklaus.com