Why Women 'Bully' Other Women At Work

What’s behind the problematic behaviour?

When it comes to characterising women at work, they tend to fall under one of two labels: warm or competent.

But, as women remain underrepresented at higher organisational levels across the globe, they can’t be both.

“These are strong stereotypes that exist, and they’re well established in research,” psychologist Dr Michelle Noon told ten daily.

“How do you make a decision in the workplace about who you are going to be if you are not entitled to be both?”

A typical scenario then sees the rise of the “catty” or “bitchy” female leader, who has clawed her way to the top and distances herself from other women when she arrives. She is the so-called “queen bee”.  

But what’s behind this problematic term is a complex phenomena that researchers have grappled with for decades, with many pointing to it being a response to the discrimination and social threat female workers face in a male-dominated workplace.

Queen Bee syndrome -- a repurposed term?

The term ‘queen bee’ was first coined in the 1970s by researchers at the University of Michigan who looked into promotion rates and the impact of the women’s movement on the workplace.

Their findings, presented in a 1974 article in Psychology Today, found that women who achieved success in male-dominated workplaces were likely to at times oppose the rise of other female colleagues.

Back then, this occurred, they said, due to a patriarchal culture of work. Today is no different. 

The term was later picked up by other researchers, like Dutch psychologist Naomi Ellemers, who was struck by the absence of senior women in academia. She found similar results.

In a 2016 study co-authored by Ellemers, the label is given to women “who pursue individual success in male-dominated work settings by adjusting to the masculine culture and by distancing themselves from other women”.

This can manifest in different ways, according to the researchers: by women presenting themselves more like men, by physically or psychologically distracting themselves from other women and by endorsing or legitimising gender hierarchy.

And, on some accounts, it appears rampant. According to a recent study conducted in the UK, more than 70 percent of surveyed women reported being bullied by fellow women.

But Ellemers is also among those who have publicly pointed out a tendency to re-purpose the term to illustrate women who are “nasty by nature”.

And this is problematic. 

So, what’s driving this?

Joyce Benenson, a psychologist in Boston, points to evolutionary origins. She believes women have always had to compete for mates and resources for their offspring. It’s not a hugely-supported argument, with many, including Noon pointing to sociological underpinnings -- namely the modern workplace.

“The better explanation, I believe, is that we are socialised to do this because it is part of an internalised patriarchy that promotes particular power structures,” she told ten daily.

“There’s a lot of evidence that women have what we call lateral violence against each other, and that comes from deeply internalising a lot of those stigmas and stereotypes towards other women.”

Noon said lateral violence is often coupled with a researched phenomena known as "double deviance".

"There is a really strong stereotype that women need to be interpersonal and kind. When women aren't behaving in that way, we start to notice it, meaning potential behaviours that would be seen as acceptable from men are found intolerable from women," she said.

"I'm not endorsing this behaviour, but we need to be aware of the stereotypes at play here."

Women 'fighting for their place'

At the end of the day, researchers believe this behaviour in part comes down to women fighting for their place at the top.

Women comprise 47 percent of all employed people in Australia, with 25 percent working full time and 21.9 percent working part time, according to recent statistics from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

But they hold just under 14 percent of chair positions and 25 percent of directorships. About 16.5 percent of CEOs, just under 30 percent of management personnel, and 28.2 percent of directors in the ASX 200 are women. 

“Certainly, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that women who are in those top leadership positions, or who are eligible for them, are given a whole raft of different rules, regulations and goals,” Noon said.

“It can often feel impossible to succeed when the goal posts change just because you’re female.”

This is, of course, not always the case. Positive stories of female colleagues supporting and mentoring each other are common, and it’s these stories Noon said we need to hear more of.

“I think we certainly need to have conversations across the broader community about the value of women in leadership in order to challenge these stereotypes," she said. 

"We also need to support stories of women championing each other and make sure these are the ones we're having every day."