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#Culture: Female-Led Workplaces Have So Much Potential, If Only We Could Get Rid of Toxic Femininity. Why Do Women Bully Women?

July 28, 2020 | by Jinal Bhatt
FI Why Do Women Bully Women At The Work Place

When I opened my Instagram this morning, I thought I had been transported to the early 1900s, in the era of black and white movies. Every second account of a female friend on my list had a B/W picture of theirs, with #ChallengeAccepted and a tag for their other girl friends. A little digging around revealed that this was a new challenge with unknown origins to spread the movement of #womensupportingwomen. I didn’t know how putting up your own picture was empowering other women but it’s a pandemic, and we’re bored, so I’ll roll with it. But here’s some food for thought: How often are women supporting women? In fact, a growing concern is that in a lot of workplaces, toxic femininity has led to women bullying women. Or should I say #womenbullyingwomen to convince you?

The workplace can be a cutthroat environment for everyone, but women tend to draw the short stick because in addition to the usual competition and stress, they also have gender-specific issues to tackle. It’s easy to assume that women only have a tough time getting ahead in workplaces where they’re pitted against men, intentionally or unintentionally. Because that would imply that an all-female workplace or at least one led by a female boss would eliminate all possibilities of mental harassment and toxicity that female employees normally face. But even all-female workplaces, that should ideally be devoid of any gender politics and show more empathy towards its employees, tend to indulge in toxic femininity instead of helping each other up.

As Bruno Mars said, don’t believe me? Just watch.

A few days ago, Indian fashion watchdog Diet Sabya asked its followers to send in stories of being harassed and/or bullied at work. Unsurprisingly, most of the replies were from people who were working in the fashion, e-commerce and media industries. But what felt like a gut punch was that most of the complaints were made by women against their female superiors and colleagues. (Pretty sure many such women will have nonchalantly participated in the abovementioned B/W photo challenge too.)

But haven’t we grown up listening to “Ek aurat hi aurat ka dard samajh sakti hai”? Can the same female colleague who offered you a pad when you needed it the most be sabotaging your career behind the scenes? Can female bosses be more toxic than male bosses? 

Also Read: #Voices: Study Says Women Who Work From Home Suffer From ‘Double Burden Syndrome’ Where Deadlines And Domestic Duties Are Both Their Responsibility

How do women bully other women at work?

It’s easy to not realise that you’re being bullied. It often starts very subtly, and most studies done on workplace bullying by females suggests that the act in itself is rather passive aggressive. For example, a male superior might come to your desk and reprimand you directly for something. However, a female boss might pass snide remarks about your appearance, stop acknowledging you in the hallways, ply you with more work and shoot you down rudely in meetings for something you did that they found displeasing. When confronted, they’d brush it off as a silly misunderstanding and you’d be drowned in self-doubt. Maybe she was right and you were just overthinking it?

It doesn’t always have to be passive aggressive too, sometimes it can be confrontational as well. As was pointed out by several responses to Diet Sabya’s post, their female bosses/managers would often dress them down in front of the entire office, shame them for their outfit choices, and lose their temper over inconsequential things. While you’d think women would have more empathy for women’s issues like period pain, maternal duties, and household responsibilities, these female superiors were revealed to be inconsiderate. In fact, many women reported that their male colleagues were more sympathetic to their problems and offered to share the workload so they wouldn’t get in trouble.

The data agrees: Women bosses can be harder on their employees than male ones.

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In a 2008 study of 1800 American employees, the University of Toronto reported that employees who worked under a female boss reported higher symptoms of distress and physical stress than those working for a male boss. A 2011 survey conducted by the American Management Association polled 1000 working women, of which 95% said that they were undermined by another woman at some point in their work. 

In 2018, University of Arizona researchers conducted three studies to assess this phenomenon. Full-time employees, both male and female, were made to answer questions about uncivil workplace behaviour that they might’ve experienced—being put down by a co-worker, being spoken to in a condescending tone, being ignored during meetings, or being treated rudely. They answered these questions twice, once for male coworkers and once for female coworkers. As one of the researchers Allison S. Gabriel reported, “Across the three studies, we found consistent evidence that women reported higher levels of incivility from other women than their male counterparts.”

“In other words, women are ruder to each other than they are to men, or than men are to women.”

The Queen Bee Syndrome

Now I could go into jargon mode or I could give you a movie example we’re all too familiar with. Who doesn’t quiver in awe of Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada, right? Imagine having a boss who could annihilate your self-esteem with one curt look! You thought maybe she was just bad to her assistants Emily and Andrea but treated her favourites, like Nigel, with respect. But she even throws him under the bus to keep her own position as Editor-in-Chief of Runway magazine.

If you can look past the fabulous high fashion and Anne Hathaway’s smile, you’ll realise that there are subtle hints everywhere of why Miranda is the way she is. Even though she is the best at what she does, she’s constantly under threat to be replaced by another woman. The CEO of the media conglomerate that owns the magazine is a man who admires her work, but doesn’t waste a chance to remind her that he holds the power. If you read the book from which the movie is adapted, it also tells you more about Miranda Priestly’s real name being Miriam Princhek, and how she came from a poor Jewish family with lots of siblings, implying that competition was the natural order of her life.

While this in no way justifies how she treats her female employees, it does explain the concept of the ‘Queen Bee Syndrome’, a phenomenon that is increasingly becoming rampant in corporate culture as more and more women ascend to positions of power in organisations. These women get away with behaving in a rude, condescending and demeaning way with their employees because they are either good at their jobs or protected by their designation and the lack of awareness of the upper management and human resources. The latter might also be enabling their behaviour and turning a blind eye if they believe it can yield profits and better results.


Why are women bullying other women?

The University of Arizona study I quoted above revealed that when men in leadership positions deviated from their gender norms, they were appreciated for it. And we’ve seen that plenty, haven’t we? We praise male CEOs whose companies offer period leaves, who are often more gentler in their demeanour, and who wear their emotions on their sleeve. However, if a female leader deviates from her gender norm by, say, acting more aggressive or assertive, she is more likely to be targeted for it. But if she adheres to them, she’s considered too ‘soft’ and incapable of leading.

Set It Up (2018)

Now here’s a conundrum. What do women do then? Be aggressive and be treated like a bitch, just how Sandra Bullock’s character was considered in The Proposal? Or be their usual self and be seen as unfit to lead? Because god knows we need more empathy in our leaders.

Clearly, women are trying to tread a very narrow bridge here, and often they might chose the easy route out. This is where the Queen Bee Syndrome comes in, making women choose to put down other women to secure their own position in the system.

While insecurity about their own place in the grand scheme of things might be the central theme here, there are other facets to this. Women might also think that helping other women in their jobs could threaten their own position. This is probably why you’ll always see a toxic female boss surrounded by a loyal posse of subordinates. The boss views them as harmless, meaning they are not a threat to her job because they don’t have the prowess to take her on. She keeps them loyal by bestowing favours upon them, and they in turn, ensure that others in the organisation follow the boss’s orders to the T. They also bully by proxy because their proximity to the boss lends them immunity in case anyone complains.

Naturally, this sets a precedent for toxic behaviour that is hard to undo. Women who see this behaviour succeed begin believing that this is the only way to secure their position, and be seen as relevant. Often, other men can also pit women against each other. And thus, the cycle of abuse continues. Remember, TDWP again? Miranda bullies Emily, who in turn bullies Andy, because she thinks that’s how one must act if she wants to be on the top where Miranda is.

Dissertations In High Definition: Running in not-so-high heels

You could chalk the insecurity up to the patriarchal order of the world. Today, even as more women join the workforce, the opportunities open to them continue to be limited. Women have to fight hard to reach their full potential and the positions of power they are in. Especially in male-dominated industries like finance, moviemaking, business, law and so on, we see that women struggle hard to reach the top, often making huge compromises on their way. But once they have made it, they need to maintain a consistent sense of pride in their work. When they cannot do that and feel threatened by other women, the bullying begins. 

What happens when a female employee complains or quits due to a toxic female co-worker?

I keep going back to the University of Arizona 2018 study, but it is rather insightful. “Evidence emerged in the three studies that companies may face a greater risk of losing female employees who experience female-instigated incivility, as they reported less satisfaction at work and increased intentions to quit their current jobs in response to these unpleasant experiences.”

So what happens when women, bullied by their toxic bosses or coworkers, want to quit their jobs? Their reason for their resignation can often be downplayed as a ‘misunderstanding’, ‘catfight’, ‘being too weak to take on the demanding nature of the job’, and even ‘jealousy’. What this does is belittle the experience of the bullied employee and tell the bullying coworker that their behaviour isn’t problematic.

Also Read: Women Are More Likely To Lose Their Jobs During This Pandemic And Will Probably Not Get Rehired Due To Gender Biases. It’s Going To Be Tough For Us

Can we really have ‘women supporting women’ then?

This is a long-drawn battle, where equality and equal opportunities across the board will have to triumph first. Secure women, who are confident of their abilities, proud of their achievements and do not feel threatened about being replaced because of their gender are more likely to uplift other female colleagues. 

Nobody’s saying that female-led workplaces or all-female workplaces are always toxic. There are many companies that are genuinely supportive of their women employees and go out of the way to enable their success. But as it is rightly said, people leave managers, not jobs. Therefore, to have a female boss that values empathy, it is essential that she be allowed to thrive in an environment that does not treat her as disposable or undermine her capabilities because of her gender. Female-led workplaces have so much potential for being a safe space for women to excel in their respective fields. And yet, we’re slaves to our basic fears that there’s always someone better than us.

Here’s a real challenge, then. Go ahead and post your B/W picture that makes you feel amazing about yourself. But when you tag a female friend, write a few words about what is it that makes her extraordinary. Maybe she is a dancer, a writer, an exceptional homemaker, or she simply smiles and makes everyone’s day better. Give her the confidence that makes her feel secure in her position in the world. Go tell you female co-worker that you’re proud of her for making it. If you’re a girlboss, be a good one by leading with empathy. And that’s how, dear ladies, you make sure #womensupportingwomen!

Jinal Bhatt

Sharp-tongued feminist. Proud nerd. Opinions with on-point pop-culture references about films, books, your toxic BF, the patriarchy, and the Oxford comma.

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