Why me? How Gender Impacts Targets of Workplace Bullying

definition-150x150I’ve been hosting discussion groups and interviewing targets of workplace bullying for over 7 years and most victims of abuse really want an answer to what is no doubt the hardest question of all: why me?  An excellent article by Salin & Hoel in the new Journal of Managerial Psychology argues that part of the answer may be linked to how differently men and women perceive the severity – and definition – of bullying:

…when subjected to bullying men more often than women seem to confront bullies, but do not ask for help, while women more often use avoidance strategies (e.g. sick leave, request for transfer or quitting), look for help, or do nothing (Olafsson and Johannsdottir, 2004). In addition, women seek more social support (Hoel et al., 2002; Olafsson and Johannsdottir, 2004). Research on incivility has found that women overall report higher scores for coping dimensions in response to workplace mistreatment, which seems to indicate that women feel more strongly affected by negative acts (Cortina et al., 2002)…

The Media Emphasis of Catfights (arrggh!)

BrightYo1958_000210Journalists love to highlight woman-on-woman bullying stories and point to surveys that support their argument. But, all too these findings are presented without the context of the social dynamics that take place in our workplaces.  So if you’re wondering why it seems to you that women at work are “harsher” and more apt to bully, here’s what Salin & Hoel found:

…as men more often hold supervisory/managerial positions, men can more often use apparently rational work-related acts, while women, who more seldom hold such positions (and the rights that go with them), seem to show a preference for acts of social manipulation (Bjorkqvist et al., 1994). The fact that men are typically bullied by other men and often by superiors, whereas women to a higher extent face bullying from both other women and men, and more often than men also from colleagues and subordinates (e.g. Salin, 2003; Zapf et al., 2011; cf. Cortina et al., 2002, on incivility in courts), further helps explain why women more often face social manipulation and men more often face work-related negative acts.

…Gender socialisation theory also explains why it might be more acceptable for women to label themselves as victims, while the victim role clashes with the norms of self-reliance and independence as prescribed for men (Nixon, 2009). This can help us understand the reluctance among men to use the label “bullying”, even when subjected to negative acts (Bishop et al., 2009).

They Wouldn’t Dare Do It To A Man

woman factory workerAn Australian study from the Consortium for Diversity at Work argues that the traditional approach to workplace bullying as gender neutral actually masks the impact of abuse on women managers. And, this is perpetuated systemically by academic research literature and organizational approaches by employers:

While few interviewees were able to explain their reluctance to consider gender as an aspect of workplace bullying, many were adamant in their belief that should workplace bullying be linked with gender, or more specifically with women, its seriousness as an organizational issue would be undermined (Lee 2002). Kate, a policy implementor, argued: “If staff thought for a moment that this was a women versus men thing, we couldn‘t get any support for our policies.” In short, the political effect of 22 representing workplace bullying as gendered is that it is generally assumed to be about women. According to Sean, a policy implementor, the identification with women needs to be carefully avoided: “The reality is that once you mention gender, everyone thinks you are talking about women so we don‘t draw attention to women at all.”

5 thoughts on “Why me? How Gender Impacts Targets of Workplace Bullying

  1. Female bullies in the workplace are more often than not former high school and middle school Queen Bees. They honed their relational aggression skills during those periods of their lives. Given their immense success at controlling and dominating their social groups using these techniques, why would they give them up when they join the workforce? Their raison d’etre is to wield social power, and most particularly, to isolate, punish, and abase other women who they feel are threatening to their social power or their egos. The productivity of their departments and the profitability of their companies are far less important to them than dominating the other women in their hive.

    Many of us assumed the workplace would become a kinder, gentler place when women became more powerful there. We were sadly disappointed to find it became more a more vicious place instead–particularly for highly competent, hard working women whom the Queen Bees target for destruction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wouldn’t it be great if women learned better coping skills that men use when confronted with bullying and men were able to learn from women that it’s not a sign of weakness to speak up earlier about emotional abuse at work.


  2. It isn’t clear that men’s confrontational responses to bullying is effective. It certainly is not effective when the bully is a female. Female bullies use “under the radar” indirect and extremely deadly means to neutralize perceived enemies. It is like the difference between open and guerrilla warfare. The surest way to lose a battle with a Queen Bee is to directly confront her. While you are busy directly confronting her, she will be busy eroding your alliances and your control of resources behind the scenes. I have seen many a man deposed by these means, and not necessarily for the betterment of the workplace.

    What women need to accept is that going to authorities with complaints doesn’t work–just as going to the principal with complaints about the Queen Bee and her entourage doesn’t work in school. Those in positions of authority generally support the strong, not the weak. The Queen Bee has demonstrated her power by bullying you, and those higher up will not risk becoming targeted by her now that they’ve seen how powerful she is. So by admitting you are being bullied, you invite the authorities to join in the bullying to protect their own skins.

    The only effective ways I’ve seen people thwart female bullies are (a) to co-opt them by figuring out how it would be to their advantage to consider you an ally rather than a threat (and that means having power over something they want) or (b) catching them doing something that is legally actionable.


    • Hi Older But Wiser,

      Thanks so much for sharing your workplace observations. Personally I found this particular research and posted the blog article because I found it interesting to look at the way that women and men perceive bullying differently. I certainly understand your concern that the behavior of “Queen Bees” is set in school years but I hope that coping mechanisms that are currently being taught to young people will come with them as they enter the workplace and they will no longer carry the scars of being bullied with them in the future. My own concern is that many researchers and experts have argued that perpetuating hopelessness is the best way to protect a bully and deepen the impact on the target of the abuse. Fingers croxx’d that new coping mechanisms are embraced as public dialog about this topic grows and no one will ever have to experience what you and I have been through. Agian, many thanks for your input!


  3. Pingback: List of Acronyms: Organizational Gender Analysis and Project Case Study | Papers, Pursuits and Purrsuasions

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