It’s no secret that various kinds of conflict in the workplace persist; we hear often about both employees and employers who are struggling to overcome some major issues within their walls, whether a lack of diversity in the workplace, racism in the workplace, or sexism in the workplace.
When we think about the fight for gender equality in the workplace, it seems logical that women are on the same page an advocating for each other. At the same time, though, even if you haven’t experienced it personally, you’re probably familiar with the stereotype of mean girls at work — in other words, catty, competitive women undercutting each other in the office.
Are There Really ‘Mean Girls’ in the Workplace?
When we first hatched the idea for Fairygodboss, a site where women can anonymously review their employers and share workplace experiences, we got two kinds of reactions. On the one hand, we found a sisterhood of like-minded people who believed wholeheartedly in women helping women.
On the other hand, some women shared horrible stories about female colleagues who made their lives miserable, often for seemingly no reason. Some of the stories way too closely resembled what many of us remember from our middle school and high school days (think: passive-aggressive behavior, cliques, and bullying).
“I don’t think women really help each other at work,” wrote in one woman (we’ll call her Jennifer) who worked in sales at a Fortune 500 company. “They’re competitive, and the more senior they get, the more they act like having another woman at the table hurts their own chances of standing out.” But, she explained, she left a job review on Fairygodboss “because [the site is] about women helping each other in the abstract.”
It took a few seconds for this to sink in. By sharing information with other women in the world at large, Jennifer wasn’t jeopardizing her next promotion or helping any specific colleague get ahead at the expense of her own career.
When we ask women who are “super-sharers” about their own work experiences, their motivation for sharing is usually altruistic. Most of these women are generous and believe that teamwork in the workplace, and helping other women succeed, is a win-win. But occasionally we do run into people like Jennifer, who may not particularly want to help female colleagues in their own office, but can at least understand that women benefit by banding together on workplace issues more generally.
How Did We Get to a Place Where Women Don't Feel Comfortable Advocating for Each Other in the Workplace?
Women don’t feel comfortable advocating for each other in the workplace — rather, they often feel like there’s a power struggle or jealous feelings between them and any other female coworker. How did this happen?
Social scientists have long made generalizations about the way that women interact with each other. In her book You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation, social linguistics professor Barbara Tannen describes how boys and girls learn different approaches to a conversation. She summarizes the difference this way: Females engage in “rapport-talk,” while males learn “report-talk.” “Rapport talk” is a communication style meant to promote social affiliation and emotional connection. “Report talk” is focused on exchanging information without an emotional component.
These language patterns reflect a complex set of cultural norms, as well as the social expectation that women behave in supportive and collaborative ways in their daily lives. Gender dynamics don’t disappear at work, so when women break these "rules," a competitive office with female rivalry can become a minefield. It’s made even worse by all the advice out there that women need to "act like men" in order to get ahead. There is so much conflicting information, and study after study shows us that likeability is a uniquely sensitive issue for women in leadership roles.
What Does Bullying at Work Look Like?
While it's unfair to judge women who don’t play by these unspoken social "rules," there’s also no doubt that there are some mean girls at work — women actively sabotage other women in the workplace. For starters, there are the women whom Sallie Krawcheck, CEO of Ellevest, has called “The Queen Bees.” This refers to “the senior women who don’t help other women advance” and even go so far as to kick away the ladder and essentially be a workplace bully.
There are many types of bullying. You may most often associate this behavior with bullying in schools, teen bullying, or, these days, social media bullying. But bullying in the workplace — while it’s often more subtle than bullying in school might be — is an unfortunate reality for many of us.
Krawcheck, in her examination of the Queen Bee, delves into some of the causes of bullying at work. She surmises that a Queen Bee may be reacting to a difficult situation or unfortunate workplace dynamics; she may intuit that there can only be so many women at the executive table — or perhaps she simply cannot relate to challenges she hasn’t personally experienced.
What Can You Do if You Encounter a Difficult Coworker or Boss?
How do you stand up for yourself in a difficult situation without escalating the issue — or stand up for others who you sense are the victims of bullying at a hostile workplace?
- Don’t take it personally. Try to look at the conflict as objectively as possible. What was the aggressor trying to achieve? Ask yourself whether you’re dealing with a one-time incident with a specific trigger, or if this behavior is likely to repeat itself and keep dragging you down. If you’re sure it’s a single episode, there may not be much you need to do now other than avoiding this person in the future.
- Consider killing her with kindness. If you know you’re stuck working alongside your workplace nemesis, you may have to grit your teeth and try to win her over. Though this tactic involves emotional fortitude, there’s a reason for the saying “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” It’s human nature to reciprocate kindness, and even if your antagonistic co-worker doesn’t warm up, you may at least be able to diffuse some of her competitive instincts.
- Play defense. Share less — or, even better, share selectively. Tell her only the things that benefit you. Again, this takes some mental and emotional energy, but if you can’t trust someone, you have to control whatever this person knows about you, your ideas, and your office relationships in order to limit the potential damage she can cause.
- Whatever you do, don’t gossip. Everyone needs support when they’re in a tough situation, but it’s a bad idea to drag coworkers and management into your issues. You never know where loyalties lie and who may be talking behind your back. Moreover, complaining and gossiping in the workplace can reflect poorly on your character and leadership skills. Hold your head up high by knowing you are confident enough to be discreet, and find your emotional outlet through friends or family, outside of work.
- Finally, you may have no choice but to confront her. This approach is not without risk, but sometimes, it’s unavoidable. If you’re at your wit’s end and things have become so corrosive that there is no other alternative but to walk away (to another department, manager, or even company), you may have nothing to lose in trying the direct approach.
Unfortunately, there's nothing easy about dealing with a difficult co-worker who makes you feel like you're being sabotaged, whether overtly or in a subtle way. Fortunately, we also know that plenty of women have nothing to do with that kind of nonsense.
Each of us can control our own behavior and take ownership of our choices and allegiances. Even if we’re not managers, we can all do small things to support fellow women at work — and in the world in general. So the next time you’re in a situation where you see another woman talked over, not given her due credit, or critiqued unfairly, don’t just sit out on the sidelines. Your voice matters, so don’t underestimate your own power to make the office a better place.
A version of this article was originally published on Refinery29. Do you have advice about how to deal with "Mean Girls" or "catty" female colleagues? Join the conversation in our community and share your perspectives with other women in the workplace!