Not In Your Head: "Mean Girl" Bosses Are More Common Than We Think
I interviewed a bright young woman; early 30s, whip-smart, well qualified, ambitious—and confused. Maybe even a little frightened.
She worked for a female partner in her consulting firm. Her boss was so solicitous that my interviewee hoped the woman, one of the few top females in the firm, might become her mentor. But she began to feel something was wrong. In meetings, her boss would dismiss her ideas without discussion; even cut her off mid-sentence. She started to hear about other meetings to which she felt she should be invited—but wasn’t. She was excluded—even socially—from her boss’s small circle of confidants.
Especially confusing was the fact that, otherwise, she was doing well at her company. She felt respected and supported by other senior members of the firm. She only had one problem, but apparently it was a big one.
One of the male partners finally pulled her aside, and warned her that her boss was suggesting to others that the woman might be happier in a job “more in line with her skills.”
As she talked—trying to puzzle through what was wrong and what to do about it—I suggested: “You might have met a queen bee.” Having spent my career in the heavily-female field of psychology, populated by highly competitive women, I’d seen this type of woman before.
The term “queen bee syndrome” emerged in the 1970s from a study of gender and promotion rates. It appears to have new life today, in the mass ascent of females through the management ranks. Those afflicted by this syndrome secure the perimeter of their hard-won place on the ladder by whatever means necessary. Far from nurturing the growth of younger female talent, they stealthily nudge possible competitors from the fast track to the sidetrack.
Some argue that these workplace persecutors are a professional embodiment of the high school “mean girl” —able to exploit female vulnerabilities that men may not see, using tactics that their male counterparts might never notice. Their assaults harm careers and, according to some studies, even health. But they leave no fingerprints.
For the woman I interviewed, the confusion stemmed from her assumption that it shouldn’t be like this. It is women, after all, who are hastening the table-pounding male bullies toward obsolescence.
As the old male-constructed and dominated structures give way, it’s been almost a foregone conclusion that the rise of female leaders would create a new kind of workplace. Instead of wielding power like a blunt instrument, they would elevate the soft skills—communication, team building and personal development.
But some females—certainly not all, there are many, many supportive and nurturing and incredible women bosses— are injecting their own strain of negative leadership traits; less overtly confrontational, but bullying just the same. There is an immune response by organizations and people to a fundamental shift in the gender of the decision makers. This is a significant factor in the workplace and not simply blog-fodder or random aberrations in search of a trend.
Don’t get me wrong: There is ample evidence that women are changing workplaces for the better—in everything from quality of work-life balance to quality of results. A major survey by the consulting firm Zenger/Folkman published in the Harvard Business Review found that in nurturing competencies and developing talent, women scored higher than men. At all levels, women were rated by peers, subordinates and bosses as better leaders.
However there is also often a different, less sunny picture, particularly when women work for women, which is supported not only by anecdotal experience but by statistical studies.
A survey by the Employment Law Alliance found that 45 percent of American workers said they have been bullied or abused in the workplace. Forty percent of the reported bullies and abusers were women—who picked on other women 70 percent of the time.
The American Management Association reports that 95 percent of working women believe they were undermined by women at some point in their career. The Workplace Bullying Institute says that male bullies are generally equal-opportunity tormenters. Female bullies, on the other hand, tend to direct their hostilities toward other women.
Something is amiss (at least in part) in the professional sisterhood.
Women resent it when female bosses adopt a brusque and assertive—stereotypically male—management style, even as they find it perfectly acceptable for male bosses.
I am not condemning women here. Those women who encircle potential competitors like the immune system attacks a foreign body could also be creatures of circumstance. High-ranking women are often minorities in male-heavy leadership teams. Having fought their way to one of the limited leadership slots, they may be reluctant to the kind of competition that could contend for their jobs. Until top leadership positions are as routinely available to females as they are for males, freezing out the competition may be a viable survival strategy.
We also have to consider that some women executives are mean to other women simply because they are not particularly nice people. It happens. Especially in more cutthroat cultures, they didn’t get where they are by bringing in donuts in the morning. To deny that tough women rise using fear as a tool of advancement is to deny that men do not do exactly the same thing. Gender is not a kinder, gentler destiny.
Generalizations are dangerous. But so is denial. The variety and consistency of employee survey results indicate that—even through their tactics and motivations may differ from a male intimidator—some portion of the new wave of female managers qualify as bullies.
As long as they exist in numbers large enough to show up prominently in employee surveys, they will be a barrier to productivity, not to mention the progress of the kind of female leadership that can, indeed, create a better workplace.