Why bullying still happens between women (and how we can put a stop to it)

Whether you’ve been ghosted, slammed at work, or see storm clouds gathering over your bank account, the sun can come blazing back when you commiserate with another woman. Time with girlfriends or supportive colleagues can soothe our souls and shift us from harsh to happy like nothing else.

That’s why it’s so soul-crushingly, counter-intuitively crazy when women turn on one another. The first time a woman blistered me with a mean-to-the-bone comment, I was stunned to silence. I’d come down with a clear case of post-bully paralysis.The latest, and hopefully last time another woman displayed major mean-girl powers—mocking, manipulating, and sabotaging me and others around her—I spoke out, to little avail. I felt kicked in the gut for days. Who does that—to anyone, much less another woman?

And one night my gut spoke: Start writing, it said. And call us all up to something far greater. How are women going to advance, succeed, and soar if we keep falling back into destructive women vs. women behaviors? As I started writing and researching, a mother lode of other women’s stories kept pouring in, during formal interviews or informal barbecues, baby showers or cocktail hours. Some women said they were still reeling from having their career, reputation, relationships, health, and the simplest things, like their new yoga pants, shredded by another woman.

In the end, I gathered research and accounts from more than 50 women, including conflict-resolution experts, corporate executives, mom’s group leaders, nurses, small business owners, women’s bloggers, and others. They all break the silence around women vs. women bullying. And offer ways to ease it while applauding and empowering women, at the same time.

In the 16 months I worked on Mending the Sisterhood & Mending Women’s Bullying, I concluded one thing: women are serving a heaping dose of mean to one another, long after junior high cafeteria snarkfests. And it’s holding us all back. Extensive research shows that women blocking, shunning, and bullying other women is still disturbingly common. The Workplace Bullying Institute has found that women make up 31 percent of bullies, and they target other women 68 percent of the time.

We can’t afford to waste our women awesomeness like this! We stand at a watershed moment when women are called to lead and light up the sky. With so many shining opportunities shimmering before us, this is not the time to be throwing shade on one another. This is the time to lift one another up and seize those openings, from business to politics to the arts. In that spirit, here’s seven reasons why women vs. women bullying still runs through our lives AND how we can all pull the plug on it—and be the amazing, empowered, successful women we are meant to be.

OUR OWN SILENCE CAN BE HARMFUL: “Bullying is sustained by the silence of those who witness it and say nothing,” wrote Odd Girl Out author Rachel Simmons. Women-on-women bullying’s festered because it’s often covert, ignored, and swept under the rug. Many dismiss it as “just women being women” or “only cattiness.” Some don’t want to believe or acknowledge women can be that nasty. Others insist this form of bullying died out decades ago with parachute pants and computers the size of cars. Yet, I spoke with dozens of women, who said they’d been bullied, taunted, and targeted for months, if not years, while HR and other managers looked the other way. Or retaliated against them—for speaking out.

So, wonderful women: Use your one and powerful voice. Speak up, report, and call bullying for what it is: inhumane, inappropriate behavior that holds back all women. Granted it’s tough. Few of us get conflict training to know what to say. But here’s some tips. If someone is abusive, whether a friend or co-worker, put them on notice that you won’t tolerate mistreatment. Executive coach Peggy Klaus advises:  Deal with it directly. Call out bullying and ask it to stop. If the harassment, abuse, or bullying continue in your office, document and report it to HR and others who will hopefully be accountable.  

WE DON’T MARGINALIZE OR PUBLICLY DECLARE AN END TO MEANNESS: Kids and teachers pounce on bullying, and schools advocate for zero tolerance of bullying. Whether in our offices or gatherings, we need to model them and declare that meanness has no place among women—or any of us. I cheered and used Hello Giggles as one of the leading, pro-women examples in my book because it brands itself as “a positive online community.” As I write, “Hello Giggles make it clear up front that it won’t publish mean-woman writing stating, ‘What’s not right for us: Snark, girl-on-girl crimes, takedown pieces.” Kudos!

BYSTANDERS LOOK THE OTHER WAY: Bullying often grows like noxious weeds because bystanders avert their eyes—and voice—to feel safe. But this is a false form of security. If you don’t call bullying out, you’re complicit. You might be the next target. And you’re not unscathed. Witnessing bullying and ignoring it also creates huge stress, research shows.  

IT’S TOUGH TO LET GO OF TOXIC FRIENDS OR WORKPLACES: In my experience, there is nothing better than female friendships and collaborative, on-fire teams of women. Love. Them. But, sometimes, women-on-women pile ons are polished to a dysfunctional art form in offices and women’s groups, especially where mean girls grew up to be mean women. In such cases, walking away from the toxic tribe may be super tough, but super smart and empowering. Kimberly Gauthier, a blogger I interviewed, chose to walk away from some extremely stressful female friendships—women who would gang up on and gossip about other women—to reward herself with positive, supportive ones. Kimberly now has fabulous friends, colleagues, and her business and relationships are soaring on a much higher level.

WE LET JEALOUSY HAVE TOO MUCH POWER: We all get jealous, envious, and resentful, occasionally. That’s human nature. But bullies and Queen Bees are consumed by so much envy, insecurity, and self loathing, they act out, badly, when they perceive another woman doing better than them. How to dethrone your own Queen Bee-ness? Get the professional help you need to curb your envy and insecurities and settle into your own wonderfulness. Come to see that life is not a zero-sum game. Trust there are infinite possibilities, whether jobs or partners, for all of us. If someone soars, it doesn’t mean you can’t, too. Nurture your own self-fulfillment and confidence and you will be less inclined to chip away at others. 

WE REWARD GOSSIP AND FIGHTS: In private or in pop culture, women’s disagreements are often glorified and stoked. Take reality shows, where women’s fights and inner-circle gossip garner big ratings. We’re better than this! Use of the power of your finger and turn that crap off. And if someone invites you to join in on the gossip IRL, bow out gracefully, but clearly. You can be too busy, disinterested, or simply say, “How about talking with ___ (gossip target) directly?” You have a choice to trash talk about another woman–or not. If you HAVE to talk about another woman, talk about her in a positive way. Sing about her intelligence, business acumen, and her big heart. If you get known as someone who finds gossiping boring, you won’t get invited to join in the gossip. And think about all the time you’ve freed up for hanging with more positive friends. It’s those friends who will help you feel most inspired and fulfilled. And who doesn’t want more of that?