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.
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.
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.
- "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.
- "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.
- "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.
Women Who Are Unintentionally Mean
The second category of women don't intend to hurt others -- but they do. They fall into three categories:
- "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.
- "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.
- "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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