Photo: Bill Diedeie

I find it easier to get along with males in the workplace,” admits Christina N. She sounds sheepish when she says this, and I’m not surprised. Christina is one of the most committed feminists I know.

Tall, stylish Gabrielle A shot to the top of her profession when she migrated to Australia as a young creative. But within a few years, she found herself relentlessly targeted by a squat, middle-aged female manager who’d clawed her way up the ranks and “didn’t like any successful women”. When Gabrielle objected to being shouted at in front of her workmates, she was told, “Toughen up, princess.”

When Belinda L went to her manager to call out a trio of female thugs whose Mean Girls-style tactics were regularly reducing a secretary to tears, “He kept watering it down, saying, ‘It must have been an accident.’ ” It was only later that Belinda twigged that the bullies’ ringleader was having an affair with him.

Over a 30-year career, public sector lawyer Sheila K led several high-level investigations into workplace bullying and harassment. But when she herself was targeted – by a swaggering female boss she calls “the Alpha Bitch” – Sheila was blind-sided. In the end, she elected to take a redundancy rather than initiate formal proceedings. “It’s a nasty process with no real outcome,” she tells me with a sigh. “I would have liked to have the courage to front it. But I just didn’t think it was going to get me anywhere.”

“Victim” is the last word that occurs to you when you talk to women like these. They are strong, funny, articulate, insightful. They are highly regarded within their professions. Ironically, perhaps, they are also women with a strong sense of sisterhood, who genuinely like and support other women.

Yet each of them has had her career in some way ambushed by a female co-worker. And they are hardly isolated cases. Research indicates that women target other women twice as often as they do men. (Male bullies take a more equal-opportunity approach to on-the-job harassment.) And the fall-out they experience is especially toxic. Figures show that nearly nine in 10 women who are bullied by female colleagues will lose or leave their jobs as a result.

Until about 25 years ago, the term “bullying” was pretty much restricted to big kids stealing lunch money from little kids. As a category of organisational dysfunction, it’s still an emerging concept. As an object of study, woman-to-woman workplace bullying is newer still.

Last year, the issue of workplace bullying was addressed in Australian law. Workers who believe they have been targeted can now apply to the Fair Work Commission for a stop order, and action can also be taken through state health and safety authorities and the Australian Human Rights Commission. Now all we need to do is figure out exactly what “workplace bullying” means. Definitions remain vague and variable, and drawing a hard line between actionable harassment and bad management can be a human-resources minefield.

Psychologist Evelyn Field, a corporate consultant and author of four books on the subject, defines bullying broadly as “an abuse of power that results in some form of injury or damage”. Most experts, including Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman, stress that the key factor is a persistent pattern of behaviour that causes distress. A single incident – no matter how loud or larded with obscenities – does not a bullying charge make.

By any definition, on-the-job bullying appears to be a growth industry. Tectonic economic shifts – all of which boil down to the fact that people don’t have jobs for life any more – are probably the main culprit. But researchers also cite the influx of women into managerial roles, the breakdown of community and even the decline of religion as contributing factors.

In a 2012 survey of government workers in NSW, almost half reported witnessing bullying in the workplace in the past 12 months, and 29 per cent had personally experienced it. More than one in five had submitted a formal complaint. (Those are especially high figures – about double the average international incidence, according to a recent review.) A 2012 federal parliament inquiry into workplace bullying estimated the cost to the Australian economy could be as high as $36 billion annually. That’s not lunch money.

Here’s another surprise: up to a third of the bad guys aren’t guys at all. The question of why women workers mistreat other women – and how they do – generates strong opinions. But hard evidence remains thin.

Everybody secretly loves a catfight. Yet everybody fears it, too – probably because female aggression runs so counter to our stereotypes around feminine “niceness”. When women have their claws out, blokes fear to tread. And other women run for cover too, instinctively protecting their flanks.

“Be honest,” I urge Dr Sara Branch, an organisational psychologist and member of Griffith University’s Workplace Bullying team. “Are women just bitchier?”

“I would say it’s more complicated than that,” she replies carefully. “It’s not as simple as saying women are horrible to women. Bullying isn’t just an interaction between two parties. It’s the workplace environment, plus the two people, plus the bystanders.”

That makes sense. Female workers still cluster in “pink ghetto” industries such as teaching, nursing and retail, or in woman-heavy departments such as human resources or publicity. So women simply have more opportunity for same-sex bullying.

There’s another factor, too. Research shows that any single-gender-dominated workplace will be more prone to bullying compared to those with a balance of men and women. The average childcare centre is a battlefield; so too is the average mine site.

But it’s when Branch points out that women are more likely to be bullied in both female- and male-dominated workplaces that I get confused.

At first, I think I misheard her. “Wait, are you saying women are just more likely to be bullied, full stop?”

“Well, yes,” she replies.

Again, when you think about it, it makes sense. The least powerful people – whether on the school bus or in the boardroom – will always be the ones most vulnerable to abuse. And the research results are pretty clear on this one. While woman-to-woman bullying tends to get the press, overall “the vast majority of bullies are men”, according to American psychologists Ruth and Gary Namie. Their 2014 US Workplace Bullying Survey found that 69 per cent of all perpetrators were male, and six out of 10 targets were female.

That doesn’t prove women are nicer. In fact, the opposite position – that women really are hard-wired to scratch each other’s eyes out, given half a chance – has support from some surprising quarters. Feminist theorist Phyllis Chesler, for example, argues that women are oppressed “not because men beat up on us but because we don’t want to be shunned by our little cliques”.

The author of the classic work Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, Chesler argues that “the feminist view that women are morally superior to men, are compassionate, nurturing, maternal and also very valiant under siege” is pure myth. In a nutshell, Chesler’s take is simply that yes, girls are mean. Really, really mean. Not because they’re female, necessarily. Because they’re human.

But what about the oft-repeated view that “women are their own worst enemies”? Bullyblocking author Evelyn Field muses that “because of the lack of support for women within the higher echelons in industry everywhere, I suspect women are fighting women for the fewer jobs that are available to women”. But, she concludes, “the basic fact, at the end of the day, is that men support men, but women don’t support women. Whereas men do. Men will press the ‘reset’ button. Women take it personally. Women are more sensitive, more vulnerable and very nasty in a subtle way.”

“But isn’t that just a stereotype?” I prod. “I mean, isn’t that simply the Mean Girls scenario that pop culture has led us to expect?” Field exhales, clearly impatient. “There’s not a sisterhood,” she repeats briskly.

And I get that. I’m sad about it, but I get it. What I don’t get is the evidence that males are any less cutthroat or competitive. “Don’t you ever watch Mad Men?” I want to ask her. “Or read the Bible, or Homer, or Shakespeare? Haven’t you ever seen World Wide Wrestling, or Question Time?”

All bullying is a bid for power and control. But do female workplace bullies use different tactics to achieve their dastardly ends? Griffith University’s Sara Branch explains there is a lack of direct data about perpetrators, who naturally enough “don’t often put their hands up to be studied. What we do know from targets is that men are more open in their aggression, but women tend to use exclusion and tactics that embarrass the other person. They tend to be a little more covert.”


– Susan Maushart

Source: Ms Bully