We want to think of women as caring and we hope their presence makes the workplace a more cooperative environment. As one of my female traits I list that women work in groups and we assume that their groups are cooperative and supportive. While we want to associate women with positive, peaceful and loving characteristics, we know women can also be extremely nasty to each other in the workplace. A lot of women report they have worse relationships with female colleagues and supervisors than their male.
Even though I’ve worked with 50 times more men than women, I would say half of the meanest people I’ve worked with are women. And by far, the #1 top position is held by a woman who personified every negative quality ever associated with a woman to an extreme degree. I will give credit to other women who tried to rival her Queen of Mean position, but they all fell short. And if anyone out there thinks they have a story about a mean and nasty woman in the workplace, believe me, my story can top yours.
Why can women be so nasty to other women?
I think it happens because there is a conflict between who women naturally are and the type of person they think the male-dominated workplace expects them to be. A lot of women believe that the male-dominated workplace is competitive and in order to rise up, you have to pull down. Another woman in the workplace is a unique competitor. Competing against her is not like competing against male colleagues.
Women know that being the only or one of a few women in the workplace is an advantage. We know how to manipulate situations to our advantage in ways our male colleagues can’t. This was one of the very first lessons I learned as a woman in the male-dominated workplace.
When I went into the Air Force, as new 2nd Lt’s we were assembled into groups of 12-15 to meet the top brass. Typically I was the only woman in the group or on occasion there may have been one other woman. When the Colonel was introduced to a dozen random faces, he remembers the one that was different. He always remembered the name and role of the woman in the group. This was huge advantage.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out other ways to take advantage of being a woman.
If my workplace was working on an important proposal or report, I volunteered to use my better communication and writing skills to proofread. I could invite myself in as a team member on the most important projects.
If there is a big meeting with outside clients or senior management, I knew how to get myself introduced. I just played hostess when lunch was brought in. Setting up lunch, I got into the conference room. There is always a man who is anxious to eat. I introduce myself, strike up a conversation and eat lunch with the big boys. Meanwhile my male colleagues are wandering around the office trying to figure out how to get in.
In one workplace, a retiring male colleague taught me another trick. The women in the workplace make it their business to know what is going on. I learned how to use the network of office women to know what was really going on in my workplaces.
I’ll be honest, I play the woman card to my advantage. Some women are afraid of being associated with the stereotypes but we use them to get our foot in the door. It is what we do once we are in the door that is important.
When another woman comes into the workplace, we suddenly have competition – someone who can do what we can do. Our woman card is no longer as valuable. Now that competitiveness we were taught to have, kicks in but in a slightly different way than being competitive with men.
We see this new woman as invading our turf. That makes her the aggressor. She knows we have an advantage in the workplace and she needs to pull us down so she can take our place. This makes us defensive and women are the most aggressive when they are defensive.
Before it became politically incorrect to say so, we believed women had a maternal instinct that made us great defenders. You Tube is full of videos of females in every species defending their young against predators. They never back down. They fight to the death. No matter what we call it this instinct it makes females incredible defenders. We will be mean and defend our turf against the new woman.
There is another characteristic of the male-dominated workplace can cause women to be nasty to other women – Autonomy. Men work autonomously. Women feel ostracized and rejected when their male colleagues work autonomously and not as part of a cooperative team. I’ve seen this a lot and women become bitter. They then put on blinders and refuse to help others. Again, this is a defense mechanism to ward off unhappy feelings.
When a new woman comes in and the men gravitate toward her because she is the new, a woman’s feelings of estrangement increase. There is jealousy. When women see everyone else getting along and they are left out it hurts. Women can lash out.
There are many issues that make women nasty in the workplace. One of the first things I look for is bullying. As a manager, I’ve learned that most of the women who were mean, nasty or bullying to other women were acting out from being bullied in the workplace. Some other women act out due to abuse at home or from being abused as a child.
When women are mean or nasty in the workplace, we shouldn’t assume they are just ugly people and accept it. We need to find out the root cause and get it addressed. Most workplaces have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that gives employees resources for free counseling. Our goal is not to punish and further ostracize the woman but to solve the root cause of the issue so we can bring her into the team if possible.
I’ve found it is best if women are allowed to work out the issues amongst themselves with little HR involvement. A third party is used to choose sides. And if a male manager wants to get involved don’t let him! I’ve never seen men getting in the middle of a dispute between women without making it worse. He will allow himself to be used to choose one side, then the other side, then back to other. Men try to treat women like men when resolving their conflict. It makes the backstabbing between the women escalate.
While we can’t stop either men or women from bringing their personal baggage and issues into the workplace, we can change the male-dominated workplace so women don’t feel the need to compete and take down each other. Women should understand that we excel when we work in cooperative and supportive groups. If we aren’t working that way then we need to figure out why. That may sound Pollyanna-ish but it is part of our responsibility as being empowered women.
Empowered Women Ensure Women Work in Supportive and Cooperative Groups
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