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.