CA­REER

Why are women of­ten harder on one another in the work­place? And how can we get past it?

Elle (Canada) - - Contents - By Molly Doan.

Fe­male com­pe­ti­tion in the work­place.

the “queen bee” por­tray­als of fe­male bosses in film are nu­mer­ous, from icy Mi­randa Pri­estly in The Devil Wears Prada to pushy Mar­garet Tate in The Pro­posal. (Forc­ing an em­ployee to marry you takes “bad boss” to the ex­treme.) Most women in power, how­ever, don’t be­have nearly as badly as Hol­ly­wood would have us be­lieve. In re­al­ity, men are much more likely to be of­fice bul­lies than women, ac­cord­ing to a survey con­ducted by the Work­place Bul­ly­ing In­sti­tute in 2012. Re­searchers found that 69 per­cent of of­fice bul­lies are male and that when they ha­rass col­leagues at work, they choose women 57 per­cent of the time. But the survey also found that fe­male of­fice bul­lies dis­pro­por­tion­ately tar­get other women, choos­ing fe­male vic­tims 68 per­cent of the time.

Bul­ly­ing isn’t the only way women are harder on other women. In a U.S. survey by OnePoll, fe­male par­tic­i­pants re­ported that they spent an av­er­age of 20 min­utes a day com­plain­ing about a co-worker. Forty per­cent of the women sur­veyed also ad­mit­ted to send­ing a rude mes­sage in the past week—com­pared to only 20 per­cent of male re­spon­dents.

“Women are hard on both them­selves and other women and can be quite bitchy and ex­clu­sive with one another,” says Suzanne Mercier, founder and CEO of Lib­er­ate Lead­er­ship, a Syd­ney-based work­place and be­havioural con­sult­ing firm that de­scribes its spe­cialty as h

help­ing fe­male business lead­ers “rec­og­nize how they support or sab­o­tage their own suc­cess.” “We have a sense that there are limited op­por­tu­ni­ties, and we of­ten fight one another in­stead of fight­ing to make the pie big­ger,” she says.

De­spite th­ese per­cep­tions, many aca­demic stud­ies have found that women ac­tu­ally make bet­ter team mem­bers in the work­place. A 2013 study pub­lished in The Eco­nomic Jour­nal found that women would rather work in groups and had more con­fi­dence in their team­mates’ abil­i­ties. Another study, con­ducted by business psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sors Jen­nifer Ber­dahl and Cameron An­der­son, con­cluded that pre­dom­i­nantly fe­male teams tend to share power equally, while pre­dom­i­nantly male teams have one clear leader—and that demo­cratic groups per­form bet­ter than those with a sin­gle leader. Still, there are a lot of is­sues women need to deal with when it comes to work­ing to­gether. So why is that and what can we do about it?

LEAD­ER­SHIP AT­TI­TUDES As of June 2014, women held only 4.8 per­cent of CEO po­si­tions in For­tune 500 com­pa­nies. Part of the rea­son for this may be that both women and men would rather work for a male boss—in fact, women pre­fer to work for a male boss even more than men do, ac­cord­ing to a 2014 U.S. Gallup survey. It found that 39 per­cent of women wanted to work for a male boss, com­pared to 26 per­cent of men. Gallup has con­ducted this survey for 60 years, and women have never pre­ferred hav­ing a fe­male boss. The gap is, how­ever, clos­ing: 25 per­cent of women now say that they’d pre­fer a fe­male boss ver­sus only 8 per­cent in 1953. (The re­main­ing 36 per­cent of women sur­veyed said they had no gen­der pref­er­ence for a boss.)

A 2008 study con­ducted at the Univer­sity of Toronto hints at why some women may avoid fe­male lead­ers. The au­thors found that women work­ing un­der a fe­male su­pe­rior re­ported more phys­i­o­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal dis­tress, such as dif­fi­culty fall­ing asleep, in­creased anx­i­ety and headaches. They de­ter­mined that the sig­nif­i­cant fac­tors con­tribut­ing to em­ployee stress were job in­se­cu­rity, de­mand­ing work and con­flict with man­age­ment.

Not sur­pris­ingly, then, prob­lems also show up in per­for­mance reviews. Last year, Kieran Sny­der, a Seat­tle-based lin­guist and tech en­tre­pre­neur, col­lected 248 per­for­mance reviews from the tech in­dus­try for For­tune.com. She found that 88 per­cent of the reviews of fe­male em­ploy­ees con­tained crit­i­cal feed­back, com­pared to 59 per­cent of the reviews of male em­ploy­ees. In ad­di­tion, 76 per­cent of the neg­a­tive feed­back given to women in­cluded some kind of per­son­al­ity crit­i­cism, such as com­ments that the woman was “abra­sive,” “ag­gres­sive” or “stri­dent.” Only 2 per­cent of the men were crit­i­cized for their per­son­al­i­ties. The gen­der of the re­viewer had no bear­ing on the re­sults—in other words, women judged other women just as crit­i­cally as the male re­view­ers.

“We do judge women more harshly,” says Mercier. “There’s a gen­der bias—women are sup­posed to be more nur­tur­ing and car­ing, which are not the char­ac­ter­is­tics we as­so­ciate with strong lead­er­ship. Women have also been so­cial­ized to avoid con­flict in favour of pas­siveag­gres­sive be­hav­iour, and they tend to lack self-es­teem. Even if we rec­og­nize that we’re good at some­thing, we don’t al­ways see the value in it.”

Some pos­i­tive notes: Another find­ing from the Gallup survey was that re­spon­dents who had a fe­male boss were more likely than those with a male boss to say they would pre­fer to work for a woman if they got a new job (27 per­cent ver­sus 15 per­cent), in­di­cat­ing that ac­tu­ally work­ing for a woman can change some­one’s opin­ion.

An ex­ten­sive survey con­ducted by con­sult­ing firm Zenger Folk­man and pub­lished in the Har­vard Business Re­view in 2012 per­haps re­veals why: It found that women make bet­ter lead­ers. The firm asked the peers, bosses and di­rect re­ports of 7,280 man­agers at com­pa­nies around the world to eval­u­ate the leader on 16 dif­fer­ent com­pe­ten­cies that best in­di­cate over­all lead­er­ship ef­fec­tive­ness, such as col­lab­o­rat­ing, in­spir­ing oth­ers and build­ing re­la­tion­ships. Women, on av­er­age, scored higher in all com­pe­ten­cies save one—the abil­ity to de­velop a strate­gic per­spec­tive. They outscored men by the h

“Women of­ten fight one another in­stead of fight­ing to make the pie big­ger.”

“Women have a ten­dency to take things per­son­ally,

which isn’t al­ways help­ful.”

great­est mar­gin in tak­ing ini­tia­tive and prac­tis­ing self-de­vel­op­ment, two traits that have long been con­sid­ered male strengths.

But it’s not all good news. The re­searchers then asked fe­male lead­ers who did not par­tic­i­pate in the study for their take on the find­ings. The an­swers they re­ceived point to the pre­car­i­ous po­si­tion that women at the top feel they’re in at their com­pa­nies. “We need to work harder than men to prove our­selves,” was one ex­pla­na­tion. “We feel the con­stant pres­sure to never make a mis­take and to con­tin­u­ally prove our value to the or­ga­ni­za­tion,” replied another.

CON­FLICT­ING PER­CEP­TIONS When women go after other women at work, both sexes tend to view the con­flict in the harsh­est light. (Men who dis­agree might be de­scribed as “butting heads,” while women are hav­ing a “cat fight.”) But the gen­er­al­iza­tions we make about fe­male-fe­male con­flict may not ring true in re­al­ity—and they are likely part of the prob­lem.

Re­searchers Leah D. Shep­pard and Karl Aquino, of the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia, pub­lished a pa­per in 2013 in The Academy of Man­age­ment Per­spec­tives ex­am­in­ing how con­flict be­tween two co-work­ers is per­ceived de­pend­ing on the gen­der of the col­leagues. Par­tic­i­pants in the study were asked to read a sce­nario about two man­agers at a con­sult­ing firm hav­ing a dis­agree­ment. They were told that the names of the two man­agers were ei­ther Adam and Steven or Sarah and Anna. Both fe­male and male re­spon­dents thought that the neg­a­tive per­sonal con­se­quences for Anna and Sarah would be far worse than for Adam and Steven. Re­spon­dents viewed the fe­male-fe­male con­flict as be­ing sig­nif­i­cantly more toxic and as­sumed that the two fe­male man­agers would be less likely to re­pair their re­la­tion­ship and work to­gether pro­duc­tively in the fu­ture. Yet in another study, when Shep­pard looked at con­flict in a real-world set­ting—she tracked park­ing-en­force­ment of­fi­cers—she didn’t find any ev­i­dence that fe­male same-sex con­flict at work dif­fers from male same-sex con­flict in any mean­ing­ful way, after com­par­ing the source of the con­flict, the fre­quency and sever­ity.

“Women don’t al­ways have time for man­ners, thought­ful re­sponses or sit­ting back to think about how we in­ter­act,” says Mered­ith Fuller, au­thor of Work­ing With Bitches: Iden­tify the Eight Types of Of­fice Mean Girls and Rise Above Work­place Nas­ti­ness. “Some­times women are jug­gling so many roles and is­sues that they’re just man­ag­ing to get by on au­topi­lot and they may not re­al­ize how stressed or over­worked they are.”

WORK­ING IT OUT We can cer­tainly all take a mo­ment to as­sess our own ac­tions and bi­ases— par­tic­u­larly gen­der bi­ases. But when it comes to deal­ing with another woman at work who’s treat­ing you un­fairly, what should you do?

“The only thing you can re­ally con­trol is your job,” Peggy Drexler, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at Cor­nell Univer­sity, writes in an ar­ti­cle for Hello-Gig­gles. “Do it the very best you can. Above all, be bru­tally hon­est with your­self. Is she pick­ing on you be­cause you’re too good at what you do? Or is it be­cause you’re not good enough? If you’re re­ally good, the odds are in your favour.”

Mercier ad­vises ini­ti­at­ing a coura­geous con­ver­sa­tion. “Talk to the other woman about how what you’re feel­ing af­fects your per­for­mance at work,” she says. “Try to look at the sit­u­a­tion ob­jec­tively. The other per­son may not be aware of the im­pact they’re hav­ing. It’s about mak­ing sure it doesn’t come across as blame. For ex­am­ple, say ‘When you do X, I feel Y, and when that hap­pens, my per­for­mance suf­fers.’ Women have a ten­dency to take things per­son­ally, which isn’t al­ways help­ful. Just be­cause some­one’s grumpy at work doesn’t mean it has any­thing to do with you.”

But what if you’re deal­ing with a woman who has no in­ten­tion of mod­i­fy­ing her be­hav­iour? Fuller sug­gests keep­ing your dis­tance. “Min­i­mize the dam­age. Think of your­self as Te­flon and let it slide off, and en­sure that you don’t get caught alone with her if you can help it.” Most of all, she adds, “don’t try to en­gage in bat­tle—she has more prac­tice. And don’t play the vic­tim—this can eas­ily ex­ac­er­bate a bul­ly­ing sit­u­a­tion.” n

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