Dealing With Mean Girls In Your Office? You're Not Alone

mean girls office

By Katherine Crowley


Are women in the office really meaner than the men? As workplace relationship experts (and women), my colleague Kathi Elster and I wanted to uncover whether the "mean girl" label was just another toxic stereotype, an example of women being judged more harshly than men for the same bullying behavior.

We interviewed more than a hundred female workers in 20 different industries. And we examined a wide range of research about women's behavior both in and out of the workplace. Our conclusion? The answer to the question of whether women are really meaner than men at work is both "no" and "yes."

A Difference In How 'Meanness' Is Expressed
Both men and women are very capable of unkind behavior. Men can be nasty to each other -- and women, but their meanness is usually expressed overtly. A male colleague might lash out verbally, or even physically. While this conduct is hardly acceptable, it is easy to identify and can be addressed directly.

Women, on the other hand, are more likely than men to compete (and fight) in more covert, subtle and indirect ways. According to research, women are conditioned to "tend and befriend," while personal ambition stirs them to compete for recognition. So a female colleague may be nice to a coworker but then cut her out of a project or roll her eyes when the person speaks. And in surveys, women say that women are meaner to and more competitive with other women at work.

More: Stop People From Gossiping About You


But it's all done somewhat covertly and indirectly. Because that aggression -- or meanness -- is harder to identify, we decided to convert the findings from our research and interviews into six categories of possible mean behavior that one woman might experience from another woman at work.

More: 5 Ways To Outsmart A 'Frenemy' At Work


Women Who Feel Threatened By Other Women
These three types of women put others down so as to protect and reinforce their sense of power.

  1. "Meanest of the mean:" You've heard of the 'Ice Princess'? This woman is hostile toward most women because she views them as adversaries. She is unable to feel compassion and incapable of trust.
  2. "Very Mean:" This is the more "classic" mean girl – tough on the outside, insecure on the inside. She can be a vicious gossip or condescending.
  3. "Passively Mean:" She is nice on the outside but competitive on the inside. She will be most indirect in her aggression, leaving you out of emails, not giving you crucial information, or cutting you out of projects.

More: How To Get Along With All Types Of Personalities


Women Who Are Unintentionally Mean
The second category of women don't intend to hurt others -- but they do. They fall into three categories:
  1. "Doesn't Mean To Hurt Others:" She can be chronically late or use health problems for attention and sympathy; what the behavior has in common is it wreaks havoc on coworkers' lives.
  2. "Doesn't Know She Is Mean:" This woman intends to help, but her feedback is harsh and abrasive. She also can offer unsolicited advice, critiquing your appearance or just bossing you around.
  3. "Brings Out Your Mean:" This woman is emotionally needy. She is an incessant talker, or just asks way too many questions. Her demand for attention and support triggers your mean behavior.

So How Should You Respond?
Despite the different forms of meanness, there are some strategies that can help:

Never counterattack. No matter what the other woman does or says, don't roll your eyes at her, or badmouth her. Counter-attacking exacerbates the situation and locks you in a power struggle.

Let the anger go. Whether you need to release your negative feelings through exercise, or talk about the mean girl to a trusted friend or advisor outside of work, find a way to neutralize your experience and let go of the toxins.

Don't make it personal; keep it professional. Respond in a way that addresses the work issue. If a female co-worker cuts you out of an important meeting, for instance, instead of yelling at her for excluding you, or shutting her out, approach her and say "it may not have been your intention to leave me out of this meeting but in the future please remember to include me."

The goal in handling any "mean" situation is to address the situation, but keeps you out of a power struggle. When in doubt, take the high road.


Katherine Crowley, a Harvard-trained psychotherapist, is co-author of Mean Girls at Work – How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal.


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17 Comments

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Bill

Answer to "mean" girls? Patience and karma. Set daily goals that you want to accomplish and do let anyone sidetrack you. Realise that for every person that you have to include to accomplish a goal, it has the potential of becomming 100% more difficult. There is always a way around this even if you have to do it yourself. It shows that you have initiative.

November 19 2012 at 6:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Michael Wade

Women are lazt and rarely carry their weight at work. Women are vindictive and yes, women's menstrual cycles influence their behavior. Get real, who wants to work for a women? Women hate working for women and the only men who like it are gay and feminzed men who are actually the same with the exception that feminized men don't have sex.

November 19 2012 at 3:05 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
mark

I worked with men and women for many years as a professional engineer. I truly must say that the women had their most difficulties with other women. They often had arguments with others. It went something like this.
Woman A comes into the office and woman B compliments her on the nice dress she is wearing. Woman A thanks her and continues to her cubicle. Then women B says to women C about women A, "Nice dress alright, she looks like a slut in it". It was really much easier to work with men. That's just my opinion.

November 18 2012 at 9:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
eksharris

I have been the victim of so many mean girls and guys that I have completely given up on trusting ANY employer ever again. I am starting up my own business.

November 18 2012 at 9:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
wdcarterjr

These usually self distruct. Had one that was trying to drive a wedge between corporate officers. If the CFO was at the auditors office, she would tell the Pres. that the CFO was obviously late coming back from lunch. Said HR director was doing everything wrong. When Pres. was out she talked about him. To her no one worked as hard as she did. She did very little. To everyone's face she was the sweetest thing. She kept escalating thing until she threw a tantrum in front of a client. She called the Pres. names and screamed "I quit." She then said I withdraw that. Corp. lawyer said to bad so sad your resignation has been accepted. Unfortunately we lost several good people that quit because of her before her melt down.

November 18 2012 at 7:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Marguerite

these arent "mean girls" they are nasty bitches. women wonder why they cant get ahead and arent taken seriously, maybe if you werent stabbing someone in the back constantly or throwing anyone who is viewed as a threat to you under the bus you would get ahead. and as a woman i would work with men any day before working with a bunch of gossipy women

November 18 2012 at 6:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
skibuff51

This story once again proves that women are nothing but a pain in the ass, will never be taken seriously, and will continue to get paid less because you cost more to employ

November 18 2012 at 6:18 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
debstarrett

Women are mean in the office place, especially if they feel threatened by another woman. If there are 4 or more women working in the same office it isn't so bad but when you are down to 2 or 3 there is more room for a problem.

November 18 2012 at 5:14 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Mavis

Oh, please. What is with this world that everyone is a victim or a bully? That gives people in your lives way too much power over your time and emotions.

November 18 2012 at 4:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Mavis's comment
cgossnail

That's the best reply. When I've encountered problems with negative or gossipy co-workers, I go directly to them and confront the situation. Not in a mean or threatening way but it's very effective to let the other person know you're not a "behind the back" sort of individual. If there's something she wants to say....have at it. Problem is usually solved and she leaves you alone or simply leaves.

November 18 2012 at 9:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to cgossnail's comment
threefromil

Doesn't work with everyone . Particularly the charismatic leader types, who many like except those she targets. She tells people something, and they will disbelieve their own eyes. My manager and director both had to get involved a number of times, and it was a pretty clear cut case.

I not aggressive, but assertive in these situations. It took me awhile to understand how to deal with them.

In my case, I came down with aggressive crippling disability, it affected me clearly within 2 weeks. She went after me as "faking it" from day one. Another guy later told me it was because she was jealous. She was on the hunt for a guy, and I was main competition. She went after other women as well.

As for giving power, my job was at risk here, and even more important, my health insurance. i was very lucky to have sharp management and have a good reputation. But I went through he11 at the worst time in my life and was treated terribly by many coworkers who believed her. One guy a foot taller than me actually shoved me, pretty amazing to do to a disabled woman who was using a walker by this time.

November 19 2012 at 1:14 AM Report abuse rate up rate down
alfredschrader

I have a worse problem. Women at places I have worked got angry because I didn't ask them out.
They were constantly bumping into me saying "excuse me" and making suggestive comments.
Sometimes, they would even suggest violence against me if I didn't take an interest in them.
I'm sorry, I've been seen with some of the most beautiful women on earth.
The less attractive ones are a waste of my time.

November 18 2012 at 4:16 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to alfredschrader's comment
debstarrett

You know, I hope those women see this comment and realize they were just being dumped on by someonne that probably can't get a date. The less attractive women probably have more class in their pinkie than you have in your whole body.

November 18 2012 at 5:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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