There was a movie a number of years ago called ‘Mean Girls’ that personified fights amongst teenage girls as wild animals clawing each other to get to the top. While this might appear to be an adolescent issue fueled by inexperience, hormonal changes, and trying to find an identity, the issue of mean girls, does not end at graduation. It is alive and well in corporate environments.
It may exist because there are a limited number of positions for women to rise up into, which means that every other woman is viewed as competition and thus, should be put down. Plus, unlike men who admire individuality and those who rise above, women often feel inferior and seek safety in groups of other women to feel protected. If there is an outlier, the group reels them back in with hostile looks, the cold shoulder or other mean behaviors.
Additionally, girls haven’t traditionally been provided the same opportunity to compete in team sports as boys. When playing on a team, boys learn respect for the hierarchy where there is a coach, a captain, followed by first string, second string etc. This prepares them for the corporate ladder game. Meanwhile, girls socialize differently on the playground. They are prone to pair off and build relationships. If these tight relationships end, they then seek another to create a similar strong bond. Lacking some skills of healthy team competition in early childhood development can lead to issues later in life.
How Real is the Problem?
Marcus Butts, an associate professor in the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, co-authored research on women and incivility in the workplace. In Harvard Business Review he and his colleagues wrote that across three studies women were 5 to 9 percent more likely to experience incivility from other women than from men. “Incivility included being addressed in unprofessional terms, having derogatory comments directed toward them, being put down in a condescending way, and being ignored or excluded from professional camaraderie”, the authors stated.
Gloria Steinem wrote in her book Revolution From Within that men bond around power and women bond around pain. When women are being mean to one another it creates an opportunity to come together and console one another. When a woman rises above the pain she breaks the bond of commiseration and will often be ostracized to bring her down a notch. If men support a woman in her success, the meanness from other women can multiply.
The Queen Bee
Some women do make it to higher levels, and they could hold open the door for others to follow them, but unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. These ‘Queen Bees’ are senior woman who do not want other women to advance and will sometimes kick out the ladder from under them. They want others to go through the same pain, suffering and struggle they had to experience to get into their current position.
What Is the Cost?
“It would be easy to believe that rudeness is ‘no big deal’ and that people must just ‘get over it’, but more and more researchers are finding that this is simply not true” wrote Trevor Foulk, PhD candidate in business administration at the University of Florida, in Aeon.
Because women feel that they are being targeted by their female peers, they are more likely to have lower job satisfaction, decreased performance lower creativity and are more likely to want to quit, which leads to the loss of good talent. Further, it actually deters women’s ambition, as they see how women who advance are treated. Do they want to be liked or do they want to progress their careers?
The other problem that happens when rudeness is not addressed is that it can be contagious within a workplace.
“Nearly any victim of rudeness can become a carrier, passing a manager’s unfair treatment down the chain of command to rank-and-file employees. Other studies have shown that the disengagement that stems from personal experience of rudeness can result in a loss of significant revenue due to project delays and cognitive distractions,” wrote Heidi Mitchell in the Wall Street Journal.
What Can We Do?
There are solutions to this problem. The first obvious one is to make the table larger for women to grow into leadership positions. This is an ongoing process, but it takes time to achieve. In the meantime women can begin to examine what is going and begin discussing it.
Sallie Krawcheck, CEO and Co-founder of Ellevest suggests having conversations such as, “I’m not sure if we’re all familiar with the research that says women advocating for other women can be dismissed. Let me tell you why Susan is the right person for this job.” Or, “I’ve always been a bit concerned that mixing business and personal relationships can be tricky, but let me tell you why my asset management offering is a special one.” And finally, “Women are underserved in this segment of the market. So, by definition, what’s out there isn’t working for them. Let me tell you why we think this new approach could.”
Women should attempt to be mentors for other women. This helps them circumvent existing pitfalls like the Queen Bee. Fortunately there are strong women advocates that are ending the days of the Queen Bee such as Sheryl Sandberg, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Salma Hayek, Lena Dunham and others. Women should also mentor men to become advocates for women.
Awareness is the first step in limiting the reign of mean girls. Only through shedding a light on these issues, having the conversation and providing advocacy can women rise up with the helping hands of other women.