I once heard Deborah Tannen speak about observed gender differences in the social behaviors of children: Whereas boys were quick to establish a social hierarchy, young girls tended to push everyone toward the mean. It seems that, for a moment, females might actually be born more nurturing and team-oriented.
Doesn’t last long.
In spite of Madeleine Albright’s warning that there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women, undermining fellow females has become something of a workplace sport. Sometimes they’re even more adamant about solidifying alpha status over other females than men. Worried that there’s only room for so many women at the top, they fight to keep those places for themselves instead of helping other women advance.
As psychology professor Peggy Drexler points out in an essay for today’s Wall Street Journal, woman-on-woman workplace abuse goes far beyond cutting another woman out of a meeting. Women even do some of the sexual harassment ourselves. They attack one another’s wardrobes, hairstyles, voice registers. She’s too thin; she’s too fat; she wears too make makeup; she doesn’t try hard enough.
It is really difficult to respond to gender-based criticisms such as these. No matter how you dress, how much makeup you wear, or how “masculine” you act, there will always be someone who finds fault with it. Sometimes it can get so bad that you’re literally afraid to go to work in the morning, and you might just find yourself trying to get revenge. She withholds information from you, so why should you share with her? She calls you a frump, so why shouldn’t you comment on her 3″ hemline?
The short, painful answer: It simply doesn’t work.
It’s hard to watch someone receive accolades for work you helped her to do and not get credit for it. It’s hard to suffer in silence while someone attacks you behind your back. And it’s especially hard if the person is your manager. But the only thing worse than seeing your bully get off scot-free is getting sucked into mutually assured workplace destruction. You might take down her reputation, but I can guarantee you’ll go down with her.
So how can you get through it? There are some helpful suggestions out there (to which I add my personal list: yoga, Rescue Remedy, trying to make your bully a sympathetic protagonist in your next work of fiction). All these strategies can do is help you to maintain your own calm in a toxic environment. They don’t really address the root of the problem.
The truth is, unless you have a more powerful protector or some other form of recourse, you have very few options. I once tried the “kill her with kindness” method against a bully, and I was really upset when it didn’t change her behavior. That’s because I had it all wrong. The only “her” you can kill with kindness is the bully inside yourself.
Of course, all this is easier to say with perspective–it’s a lot harder to keep your cool when you’re being pushed around at work and nobody stands up for you. But in the long run, the best thing you can do is not to be that kind of woman. Share information with others, both women and men. Mentor. Stand up for your colleagues, even bullies, when their appearance or sexuality is used to take them down professionally. Watch your own behavior for signs of bullying–you may be cutting people out without realizing it. Keep in mind that there is still a lot of room for more women at the top.
After all, our little-girl selves understood something important: When nobody gets left out, everybody has more fun.