BPW Foundation's Women Misbehavin' Blog

Well behaved women never make history

“It’s as if we’re back in high school”

Posted by egehl on May 21, 2009

This is a quote from a recent New York Times article about women bullying other women at work and the detrimental effect it’s having on women being successful and reaching their full potential.

You might think bullying is reserved for school halls and locker rooms but according to the Workplace Bullying Institute not only does bullying in the workplace exist, but 40 percent of bullies are women.  And even more telling is that women choose other women as their targets more than 70 percent of the time.  Bullying is defined as verbal or psychological forms of hostile behavior that persists for six months or longer.  Women already have enough obstacles to face in the workplace and unfortunately they are exacerbating it by acting in ways that sabotage each other.

So why are women being their own worst enemy?  Especially when women are still struggling to break through the glass ceiling women should have a unique understanding of each other’s similar challenges and find ways to elevate their peers to a higher level of success and opportunity.  However this is not the reality in too many workplaces and as a result women are being sabotaged by their coworkers to a point that they are leaving jobs, becoming entrepreneurs to avoid future nasty encounters, or developing an unhealthy level of anger and vengefulness.

There are a variety of reasons why women specifically target other women.  Typically women view themselves as the less confrontational sex so they are less likely to respond to aggression and fight back against back stabbing and passive taunts.  Even though women make up more than 50 percent of professional occupations, according to the nonprofit group Catalyst, the 2008 census found that only 15.7 percent of Fortune 500 officers and 15.2 percent of directors were women.  Therefore women could be pitting against each other due to the lack of opportunities for advancement to the highest levels.  Two Canadian researchers found that women may sabotage one another because they feel that helping their female co-workers could jeopardize their own careers.  Even with all of these plausible explanations the issue of bullying is not clear cut, and other underlying issues are at play.


Women in the workplace at every professional level often feel that no matter how they conduct their actions and decisions, it’s never quite right.  They constantly have to strike a balance between being forthright enough, but not too much.  Women, especially those in leadership and public positions, are viewed as mean and vicious if they come across too strong but they will be ridiculed if they act too soft or fall into gender stereotypes.  Any successful woman will profess that she has had to work twice as hard as her male counterpart to achieve the same accolades.  These pressures and others such as the tightening job market and the mixed messages women receive might help explain why women fight against each other.  So how do we change this destructive workplace culture?

Employers should take notice if they feel that their female employees are being aggressive and consider hiring an outside coach who can organize conflict role-playing and monthly group discussions so that tensions can be discussed in a safe setting.  In addition, a questionnaire has been developed that can identify a full range of behaviors that constitute bullying which can help organizations uncover problems that may not be obvious.  Unfortunately many employers ignore bullying or don’t know how to handle it therefore relationships can fester and get worse over time.  In the end this proves to be detrimental to employers because employees will leave if the situation gets bad enough which impacts an organization’s bottom line and turnover rate.

Not only should employers be wary of this growing trend, but women as well.  Women need to empower and mentor each other because if all women succeed it has a positive impact on the entire workforce, and helps to lift everyone up.  In my professional experience it is the female coworkers and managers who want you to succeed and reach your goals that have the best working relationships with other women.  And frankly not enough of them exist out there.  So it’s time for women to empower each other otherwise we will not get anywhere through manipulative and divisive tactics.


One Response to ““It’s as if we’re back in high school””

  1. […] of their team to contribute and accomplish tasks.  Unfortunately this is not always the case with female bullying however typically women will give credit when credit is due.  Women like to feel empowered so when […]

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