Women and Work, WOW: Woman-on-Woman Bullying in the Workplace

I've seen it. I've experienced it and dear God I certainly hope that I haven't been guilty of it. Now, though, I feel validated in my observations and personal experience. I'm referring to women bullying other women in the workplace.

According to a survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, when women bully other women in the workplace they -- get this -- choose other women as their targets in approximately 70 percent of cases. Yep, you read that correctly, 3 out of 4 times women select their female co-workers as their victims. Hello middle school. Is this simply a case of regression to our earlier years of middle and high school? I hope not. I'll return to that later. First I'd like to share a personal story of my own because statistics always resonate more clearly and colorfully when they are illustrated by our own gut-wrenching, heart-sinking, pit-in the stomach stories.

I worked at a place that I loved for several years. I considered myself a cheerful and cooperative co-worker. Despite that, I remember and will likely never forget the disgust that I saw in one co-worker's face every time she had the unfortunate experience of being in my presence. This was the sequence of events. First, she would greet everyone in the room but me, then she would furtively (she thought) glance at me, and then a look of disgust would swallow up her entire face. And, let me say that what she thought were her furtive glances were not so furtive. She looked me up and down from head to toe not once but twice each time she spotted me. Concerned that I might be misjudging this situation, I had both a male and a female co-worker give me some feedback about this woman's reaction to me. They were both painfully honest people who were not inclined to agree with ideas if they did not witness them themselves. They validated me. Yes, they said _____ certainly doesn't delight in your presence.

I tried for years to identify the point at which_____ had identified me as an NOKD (Not Our Kind Dear), but was unsuccessful. I even went out of my way FOR YEARS to smile at her, seek her opinion and do anything that I could think of within reason to foster a kinder relationship. She was not having it. Eventually, I gave up. If she wanted to dislike me I would have to accept it. After all, we can't all like each other, right? So, I took my proverbial lunch box and moved on to another lunch table. And, I kid you not when I tell you that she once told me that there wasn't room at her lunch table for me to join her group. I am talking about women in their forties here. Once again, hello middle-school. I thought that we had parted ways several years ago.

So now back to the issue at large: Why do women bully other women in the workplace? I will offer some suggestions but this I am sure is a skeletal outline. My hope is that we can start acknowledging and addressing WOW bullying, one of the most brutal social dances of all.

1. Is there some sort of natural inclination to return to old and familiar behavior when we experience stress? Do we return to "mean girl culture" where we sink our claws into other women when we wish to maintain our status at work and feel insecure and threatened?

2. Are we so frightened about being imperfect in our multiple roles as wife, partner, mother, daughter and worker that our need to be perfect in multiple roles leads us to demean women who we may perceive as better multi-taskers?

3. Is the idea of the sisterhood a relic and a mythology at this point? That idea makes me tremble with fear.

4. Are women feeling that it is competition rather than cooperation that leads to job promotions and success? After all, men have many more years of engaging in cooperative team sports than we do prior to entering the workplace.

What do you think: Why do women tear each other down at work? Have you ever been the target of a bully at work?