Workplace Bullying: Are Women Their Own Worst Enemies?

Assumptions about gender end up distorting the reality of bullying in the workplace, all too often suggesting that women themselves are undermining feminism's goal of advancement for women.
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Bullying is on our minds these days. Bullying in schools, bullying in the workplace, let's face it, bullying is a problem in all organizations. But lately some of the "reporting" I'm reading does more to contribute to the problem than help us redress it.

For example, in the New York Times article "Backlash: Women Bullying Women at Work," Mickey Meece examines the phenomenon of bullying among women. While feminism and the womens' movement have taught us to consider the gendered dimensions of significant social problems, there are many ways one can explore gender. This article provides a great example of how not to do it.

Ask a researcher who actually studies gender and they will tell you that gender is about relationships of power that shape every aspect of our daily lives. Yet too many newspaper and magazine articles fail to examine what gender is, and assume it is some set of essential differences between men and women (which may tie to chromosomes, reproductive organs, cultural differences, or some other set of characteristics, depending upon the moment and who you ask). Too often they rely upon commonly held assumptions about gender differences that have no research to support them. This article is a case in point, and these assumptions about gender end up distorting the reality of bullying.

The author starts by introducing the problem of bullying in the workplace:
"It's probably no surprise that most of these bullies are men, as a survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, an advocacy group, makes clear". Despite this fact, however, the article focuses exclusively on the fact that women also bully women, which for some reason is presented as both more surprising, and more disturbing. After all, "a good 40 percent of bullies are women. And at least the male bullies take an egalitarian approach, mowing down men and women pretty much in equal measure. The women appear to prefer their own kind, choosing other women as targets more than 70 percent of the time." The issue is examined as another example of the all too common "Women are their own worst enemy" story we have all heard before.

Suggesting that women themselves are undermining feminism's goal of advancement for women, Meece asks, "In the name of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, what is going on here?"

Well, let me tell you what is going on here, because this article certainly doesn't.

Let's start by looking at the data in this study:

The authors conclude that "Bullying is mostly same-gender harassment," because 32% of cases are between men, and 29% are between women. But let's look at those numbers another way. Men bully both men (54% of the time) and women (46% of the time), whereas women primarily bully women (71% of the time). And keep in mind that 60% of bullies are men, and 57% of the targets are women.

So what does this really tell us? It tells us that this is not primarily a problem within genders; framing it that way only serves to obfuscate the issue.

Instead, this data reaffirms what we already know about the phenomenon of bullying: bullies tend to be those in power, who target people with less power. This fact is supported even further by the study's finding that 72% of bullies are bosses, while the lower one drops on the career ladder, the less likely it is that they will bully.

So bullying is a tool of the powerful. When I was a graduate student taking a class on the sociology of the family, I always remember my professor telling us "nagging is a tool of the powerless." After all, if one had the power to actually make others follow one's commands, they would not need to resort to nagging (does "honey, would you pleeeeaaaassseeee take out the garbage" sound familiar?)

So nagging is a tool of the weak, and bullying is a tool of the powerful. Think about it -- if the bully were not in a position of power, the bullying would not be very successful. The fact that the bully has greater access to resources, control and influence over the opinions of others is where their power lies. The same thing is true on the playground -- it is most often the geeky nerd who gets bullied by the more popular kids. And bullying behavior increases when those in power feel that it is threatened.

So why do women most often bully other women? Because they are rarely in positions of power over men. According to the article:

In addition, women are more likely to work in careers and workplaces that are primarily populated by other women. Men, on the other hand, wield power in the workplace over both women and other men.

Instead of examining the larger dynamics of power at work here, the article focuses on women as a group, asking why they bully other women.

We are left with numerous problematic conclusions:

  • Women's relationships with each other are problematic and women need to learn to better support each other.

  • Women are the problem themselves, and they are becoming too much like men as they move into positions of power.
  • Bullying itself is not a gendered phenomenon, men bully men and women bully women, so we are all affected by it.
  • Bullying by men is natural, and not in need of examination. We should expect that kind of behavior from men.
  • Looking at the exact same data, however, informed by an understanding of how the dynamics of gender and power operate, a very different story can be told.

    The reality is that:

    • Bullying is about power, and people bully those they have power over.

  • Bullying increases when people feel their power threatened.
  • Our unequal gender system contributes to the problem of bullying because it reinforces the idea that some people should naturally have more power than others; that men are by nature more aggressive, and women should be more nurturing and supportive.
  • And bullying in the workplace contributes to economic inequality between men and women. As this study makes clear, bullying is a very serious problem, with real consequences: 40% of the time, the target ends up quitting her job (remember, most targets are women). So bullying is a tool to maintain inequality.

    The way in which the story of the data is told by the New York Times ends up hiding the real problems and blaming the victims. If our analyses are not informed by research and analyses of gender and power dynamics, we end up contributing to the problem, rather than developing real solutions.

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