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Female Bullies in the Workplace

Last night I listened to CBC Radio’s Ideas.  It was the third program in a series that originally aired in 2004, It’s a Girl’s World, based on an NFB documentary of the same name. It asserts that just as girls use shunning, exclusion, eye rolling and gossip to establish their power and place in the social hierarchy, women in the workplace use these same tactics against other women to establish and promote their position in this setting.

It further suggests that the predominantly male office culture may encourage this climate of aggression against women, as it keeps women busy fighting each other and, functioning as a kind of natural selection, limits the number of women who make it to the top.

I’ve seen the eye rolling, the exclusionary tactics, the deep freeze and the gossip in the workplace. I hadn’t fully thought of these more subtle devices as bullying. However, we need to recognize them as a particularly hurtful form of exclusion. Women who have been bullied in this way have suffered long-term damage to their self-esteem, just as young girls subject to the same treatment in the school yard carry their wounds into adulthood.

I’ve cringed when from time to time I hear women say they would rather work for men than for women. It’s usually younger women, who don’t remember the days when opportunities for women were limited and inane and now almost unbelievable discussions around whether a woman’s menstrual cycle disqualified her from becoming a pilot or the question “would you want a woman doctor?” were an accepted part of the conversation. They don’t seem to realize they’re shooting themselves in the foot.

I don’t like hearing how catty and underhanded women are; these stereotypes were part of the anti-feminist rhetoric in the mid-20th century. In fact, feminists have opposed the discussion for this reason. The program cites evidence from history and literature that women, who were expected to be “nicer” and discouraged from the more physical means of establishing social hierarchy, have behaved this way for centuries.

We won’t change behaviour in one or two generations, but we do need to put it under the spotlight in order to bring change. I’m going to be looking at the dynamics of my own workplace differently and making sure I’m not assenting to any behaviours that exclude and wound.


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