How To Stay Professional When You Work With Bitches

The office mean girl is still very much alive and thriving. According to Cosmopolitan Magazine, 82% of readers agree that women have, in fact, gotten meaner. Selena Rezvani wrote in The Washington Post: 

“While workplace studies show women are routinely underestimated compared to men, we don’t give much credence to the fact that women hampering other women is also to blame….Many of us have witnessed the man who comments on a woman’s hotness just as she leaves the room. But what about the woman who criticizes another’s appearance (Did you see what she was wearing in there?) or frowns on a woman’s unapologetic use of power (Just who does she think she is?)?”

Woman-on-woman bullying has increased in the last few years as women have officially become 50% of the workforce for the first time according to the Shriver Report. According to a 2007 Workplace Bullying Institute survey, though the majority of workplace bullies are men (60/40), female bullies target other women 71% of the time. Additionally, female bullies more frequently engaged in under-the-radar behaviors such as sabotage (53.7% of female vs. 39.9% of male bullies) and abuse of authority (50.2% vs. 44.7%), as compared to the more observable form of verbal abuse engaged in by more male (57.5%) than female bullies (47.1%). One reason women may take on other women: “They’re often less confrontational when attacked,” says Gary Namie, Ph.D., cofounder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, an advocacy group. “They tend to turn their backs on bad behavior in a way men might not.”

This is why Kathi Elster and Katherine Crowley, career experts and authors of Working with You is Killing Me and Working for Your Isn’t Working for Me, decided to tackle this issue head on in their new book, Mean Girls at Work: How To Stay Professional when Things Get Personal. Working with difficult female coworkers if something we have all gone through – or are going through now! – and Crowley and Elster have come up with a thorough list of actionable tips to help us get through it. We talked with these ladies about all the different kinds of mean girls you may encounter at work and what to do about it (that doesn’t involve slapping someone.)

Why did you decide to write this book?

Kathi Elster: We were invited to speak at a conference for Women in Technology, and they asked us to give a talk about Women Haters. We were shocked because we had never heard that term.  So we did a little research and came up with a one hour talk that we called “Competitive Women at Work: From Fighting to Uniting.” And you know when you hit a nerve. We had a packed room of women and they were riveted.

Katherine Crowley: Then we started to look at the statistics – the fact that women comprise almost 50% of the workforce and that women are getting 70% of the advanced degrees. It became obvious that today’s professional woman is likely to work with other women, report to a woman, and manage women. We knew it was time to offer concrete solutions for difficult relationships between women at work.

Why are women so mean or are they actually mean or is it just something about the work environment that brings it out of them?

Kathi Elster: The workplace is competitive by nature.  And many women are conflicted when it comes to competition:  we want to be liked and we want to win at the same time.  The result is covert competition – which often manifests as mean behavior. For example, a woman might be nice and friendly to her co-worker to her face, but say things that erode that person’s reputation behind her back.

Katherine Crowley: It’s also important to note that certain workplace environments bring out more mean behavior than others.  We’ve found, for example, that companies with weak management – where the rules of conduct are not clearly defined and enforced – foster more covert competition between women than companies with clearly defined policies and strong leadership.

I know you talk about “Bringing out your mean”? Can you describe that?

Kathi Elster: The women who bring out our mean tend to be very needy.  They might ask way too many questions throughout the day because they’re so anxious to please, or they might be overly friendly and talk all the time — eating away at your schedule. When these women act out of neediness, their female colleagues tend to snap at them.

Katherine Crowley: A normally civil woman might find herself rolling her eyes at a coworker the “brings out her mean.”  She might snap and say, “Not now!” or “Can’t you see I’m busy?” or “Figure it out on your own!”  The needy colleague then feels hurt and surprised.  She might respond, “Wow, you seem very  stressed out.” Leading the other women to dislike her even more.

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    • Lastango

      Leaving aside the possibility of changing jobs, the best solution I’m aware of begins with the recognition that mean people generally only attack weak people, or when they’re probing for exploitable weakness. The best defense is political/social strength. Someone who is part of their own group of supporters won’t look like an inviting target. Said another way, it’s risky to appear isolated.
      In the corporate/organizational environment, part of showing strength is never giving others an avenue for disrespect. If they smell blood in the water they will circle like a pack of sharks and your career will be over (unfortunately even non-mean people will join the meanies if that seems the popular thing to do). I’m talking here mostly to externals. For instance, don’t drive your older Civic to work if everyone else has an Audi.
      What to do if you’re a manager and there’s a real problem with horizontal violence between the women in your team? Um, hire a man. That cools it down quicker than anything else you can do.
      BTW, I think “horizontal violence” is a better term than “meanness” because we’re talking about truly destructive behavior, not just petty cattiness. People really are trying to destroy someone else by driving them out and wrecking their career.

    • babe divine

      I have a boss who doesn’t get mean, but does get “frustrated” enough to say below the belt comments disguised as “constructive criticism.” Granted I’m new to the dept., but how do you show assertiveness after someone has already put you in your place?

      • Lastango

        A couple of thoughts.

        First, recognize that your overall goal isn’t to back her off, it’s to get her actively working to help you get ahead. “Showing assertiveness”, at least directly, is usually inconsistent with that program.


        Try some of these steps instead:

        == go to her for help regularly, saying “can you please help me improve this?”, especially about whatever she criticizes. You would not only be preempting her low-level attacks, but you are also making her responsible for the result. She can’t criticize you for it if she’s partly responsible for it.

        == find out what her personal priorities are, and get involved in those. That way, you become a valuable asset.

        == try to become part of initiatives or programs that involve others. This reduces your individual exposure until you can better learn the job.

        == build your support base with others. Popular people aren’t targeted by bullies.

        == if you see a chance to do some work that will get you recognized by higher-ups, go for it. If they like what you do, or the way you do it, they wil speak well of you and that gives you some protection. It also makes your boss look good.


        It needs to be said that none of all that is magic. There are not guarantees. If you’re young and attactive, or have a better education, or your boss knows you have a better social life than she does, she might have it in for you in ways that will never change. Sometimes, you just have to fold ‘em and move on.


        One other thing: sometimes people talk socially about all the things that are going right for them. In offices, that can be bad strategy because it creates envy you can’t see and enemies you don’t know you have. It’s better strategy to STFU. Sure, you’d love to tell everyone at the office about your wonderful guy and how the two of you are getting serious and making plans, but do you really need to? And do you think your boss and her 40-something divorced femal colleagues want to hear about it?

        It can be better to play your cards close to your chest, at least until you find out who your real friends are. The rest of them don’t ever need to know how you spend your free time, what you did on the weekend, that you’re musically or athletically talented, that your family owns a cottage, or anything else about how you live your life.

        It might seem like I’m overstating this, but even something as simple as mentioning that you’re financially stable can cause someone up to their eyeballs in debt to hate you. Especially, beware of folks who ask you personal questions. They’ll be all smiles when the do it, and you won’t know that they’re trying to find socially-acceptable ways to kick the legs out from under you.

      • Rebecca

        As someone who has a boos like the one described…you’ve given really good advice. That is exactly what I’ve done in my workplace and now she trusts me and is a lot more pleasant to work for. Meanwhile, I have a coworker who doesn’t pre-empt her criticism and suffers for it a great deal.

    • Joe

      most of the women of today are so very mean nowadays, and not like the real women that certainly were LADIES years ago.

    • vanessa

      I do see how some women treat each other in work and it’s quiet cruel at times. I’ve seen one lady get promoted at work, not long after she was promoted a female in her team bullied her into getting her a promotion by threatening to leave, forcing her to fast track her promotion. Another girl that reported to her used continuously give her the silent treatment by asking other girls on the team what they were doing for lunch and ignoring her boss eventhough a few of them went for lunch together. The same girl disregarded her authority in team meetings by talking down to her and using an aggressive tone intimidating her. Other managers would constantly be on her back about what her team was doing and leave her so scared she’d be panicking that everyone was busy. She would go the extra mile to help them but one or two of them wouldn’t help her and wouldn’t be reasonable with her. All of this behaviour towards her has made her look very week and am sure they will continue to treat her like this until she realises that she is being bullied and does something about it.