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‘Most days I would get home in tears’: Why do women bully other women at work?

As two women battle it out at work in the new season of ‘Emily in Paris’, Olivia Petter examines what’s driving internalised misogyny in the workplace

Saturday 24 December 2022 06:30 GMT
Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu and Kate Walsh in ‘Emily in Paris’
Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu and Kate Walsh in ‘Emily in Paris’ (Netflix)

When Gina’s boss accused her of using her phone at work, she immediately knew who had told him. “I replied that I only ever use my phone during lunch, which is true. But he said that a colleague had informed him of my ‘misconduct’ and he had to take action.” It was the latest in a long line of false accusations made against Gina by her line manager. “She would regularly take her frustration out on me and once screamed in my face.” This only ever happened when they were alone; other colleagues dismissed her concerns. “It made me feel like I was losing my mind.”

The former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who died earlier this year, famously said “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”. It’s a quote often used in relation to the workplace as a way of inspiring female employees to lift one another up. And yet, even in 2022, the sentiment of Albright’s quote feels utterly utopian – because that special place is very real indeed, and it’s filling up fast.

The Workplace Bullying Institute found that women are bullied up to 80 per cent of the time by other women, while other studies have shown that women who report to women experience a greater frequency of bullying, abuse and job sabotage. The phenomenon is such that it even has a name: Queen Bee Syndrome. Used to describe senior women who purposefully hold back other women because of their gender, it was coined in the 1970s and is still used today, somewhat dismissively, to describe this ongoing problem.

According to Speak Out Revolution, a non-profit on a mission to stop the culture of silence around harassment and bullying in our workplaces, the most common toxic behaviours reported are manipulative behaviours (72 per cent), everyday putdowns (67 per cent) and excessive monitoring of your work (62 per cent). Research by Glassdoor has also shown that women are more likely to be bullied than men, potentially because female employees are less confident in speaking up for themselves.

Not only has this kind of behaviour become alarmingly common, it has become normalised to the point whereby it’s regularly featured in popular culture. Just look at the new season of Emily in Paris, the hit Netflix series starring Lily Collins as an American marketeer who can barely say “croissant” yet seems to have quickly become a mover and shaker in the French capital.

This time around, we see Emily’s boss, Sylvie (played with withering insouciance by Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu), going head-to-head with her American boss, Madeline, in a slightly farcical dispute that reaches its apex when they both turn up to an event wearing the same designer gown. Sacre bleu.

In this instance, Sylvie represents the gate-keeping matriarch turning her nose up at another woman whose role she sees as a threat to her own. Madeline (Kate Walsh), meanwhile, represents the #GirlBoss mug-drinking, #SmashThePatriarchy sign-bearing counterpart, which is arguably the more insidious trope of the two. It’s also the one we’ve become increasingly familiar with in recent years.

Originating in 2014, “Girl Boss” was a term prescribed to female leaders whose success was characterised by Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” approach. For a while, it was the bastion of contemporary feminism; inspirational female leaders perpetuating its ideologies were hailed as icons and given clothing lines. Fragrance ranges. Even TV shows. It all quickly unravelled, though, several years later as stories of failed so-called Girl Bosses emerged. Like Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan, who founded the famously elitist all-female members club The Wing, which closed following allegations of discrimination, or Elizabeth Holmes, the CEO of blood-testing start-up Theranos who was recently sentenced to 11 years in prison for fraud.

As a result, the term “Girl Boss” itself became shorthand for faux feminist leadership. These were women who betrayed the ideals they purported to perpetuate. It might no longer be something women aspire towards, but key Girl Boss principles – largely those predicated on individualism and hustle culture – have certainly left their mark on some female leaders.

Consider the likes of Kim Kardashian and Love Island star-turned-influencer extraordinaire Molly-Mae Hague, both of whom have recently supported the idea that anyone can overcome hurdles to be a roaring success; you just need to try hard enough – or, as Kardashian said, “get your ass up and work”.

It’s these kinds of attitudes that are contributing to the toxicity we see evolving between women at work, fostering a culture of fierce competition and scarcity. There are only so many leadership roles available to women; do what you can to get yours, even if that means compromising other women along the way. At least, that seems to be the general thesis posited when conflict arises between women at work. But it’s not always that clear.

Because there are fewer women in senior leadership and competition is so fierce, some women think there isn’t enough space at the table and therefore are keen to fight for what they deem is their rightful seat over and above another

“One of my old bosses used to get off on humiliating her younger female employees,” recalls May, 37, in London. “Her sense of entitlement was legendary and before long I was crying before, after and during work hours.” More than three-quarters of May’s team left within six months of her old boss starting. “It was bullying, and it has happened in so many other workplaces I’ve been in. I couldn’t work out what was fuelling her behaviour.”

For Katy, 27, the issue was that her boss kept getting involved in her personal life. “It got to the point that I couldn’t tell her about what I was doing in my free time because of the judgement, questions and curiosity that was completely unprofessional,” she recalled. “She expected me to work after hours every day, and most days I would get home in tears.”

It would be easy to write off women bullying women at work to something as simple as jealousy, or to simply refer to it as Queen Bee Syndrome in action. But the issue is far more complex. “The world is a horrible but very successful and effective patriarchy, and we are all brought up to live and work in it,” explains author, psychologist and CEO at Victim Focus, Dr Jessica Taylor. “Women and girls learn early on that they are in competition with other women and girls. Who is the prettiest? Who is the smartest? There can only be one, you see. And so they are taught to fight for the tiny scraps of power they may be afforded by crushing other women and girls.”

It’s this mindset that often causes women to act out against one another; one woman’s success is another’s shortcoming. “I think my boss was threatened by me,” says Gina. “I was good at my job and, as I started gaining more experience in other areas of the business in a bid to move away from her, I think she realised she couldn’t control me any more and so attempted to destroy my reputation and confidence to make herself feel better and try to gain back control.”

Today, out of the 500 companies in the Fortune 500 list, just 8.8 per cent of the CEOs are women. And that’s considered an improvement compared to previous figures. “The more senior the women are, the more often they are compared to their male counterparts or more likely have male bosses,” says leadership coach Beth Hocking. “I’ve seen this happen when women try to embody their masculinity and subsequently discard their feminine energy, to be seen on a level playing field with men. Because there are fewer women in senior leadership and competition is so fierce, some women think there isn’t enough space at the table and therefore are keen to fight for what they deem is their rightful seat over and above another.”

In other instances, though, it could be that a woman has experienced bullying themselves in the workplace and is inadvertently repeating the patterns she suffered from. “I think that if a woman has experienced a tough time in the workplace in the past, the kind of leader they become can go one of two ways. They either emulate the same behaviour, seeing it as a rite of passage for younger employees, or they recognise this wasn’t the way they appreciated being managed and so they take a different path.”

‘The world is a horrible but very successful and effective patriarchy, and we are all brought up to live and work in it,’ Dr Jessica Taylor (iStock)

Thankfully, employers are wising up to the issue of workplace bullying, between women or otherwise. Larger companies are usually well-equipped with HR departments that are able to address individual concerns. But in order to encourage women to speak out against workplace bullying, a wider culture shift could also be needed.

“I ended up confronting my boss about her behaviour,” recalls May. “I remember shaking as I went through a list of all the things she had done to me. Things eased up for a few weeks, then she picked up where she left off.”

Clearly, there is more work to be done if women are going to feel safe and confident in the workplace. “Employers need to create an environment where individuals do not hesitate to call out inappropriate behaviour, including bullying, by others,” says Antonio Fletcher, head of employment at the law firm Whitehead Monckton. “Women, as with all employees, should not feel reticent in coming forward where they witness or experience such behaviour, and employers need to be very clear about what is and is not acceptable conduct within the workplace.”

On an individual level, though, it becomes more complex. Learning not to react to bullying of any kind is crucial when it comes to preventing it from getting worse. That means resisting the urge to defend yourself against false accusations, for example, and biting your tongue when faced with cruel or condescending comments.

“Do not retaliate, do not become her, do not get sucked into tit-for-tat,” says Dr Taylor. “The rest of the response has to be focused on protecting and caring for yourself in the face of someone who is projecting many of their own insecurities and misogynistic values on to you.” Most importantly, though, don’t let it affect how you treat other women at work. The last thing you want to do is contribute to the cycle of toxicity you’ve suffered from. Instead, use it as a blueprint for how not to behave. Vow to do better, and you’ll see the benefits yourself. Not just to you personally, but to your company and everyone else around you.

*Names have been changed

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