It’s about time to have a new #MeToo movement — one that gives voice to all those women who have been bullied, denigrated, dismissed and humiliated by other women, particularly women in a position of power. This might sound bizarre. After all, the myriads of documents produced by international organizations and NGOs abound with claims to their dedication to the “empowerment of women.” Women in leading positions, like Angela Merkel in Germany and Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, are celebrated. Marine Le Pen’s rise to become a legitimate presidential contender in France, not so much.
Hilary Clinton still gets away with presenting herself as a feminist icon, despite her continued defense of her husband’s sexual misconduct, her longstanding friendship and association with Harvey Weinstein (innocent until proven guilty), or the fact that the Clintons’ Center for American Progress, which is headed by a woman, “is rife with accusations of harassment, intimidation and censorship of its female employees.”
Workplace Harassment Is a Ubiquitous but Invisible Scourge
There is an ugly truth here, which is that more often than not, women in position of power throw any sense of gender loyalty overboard. Actually, it is worse: Women in power become other women’s worst enemies. Once in a position of power, climbing up the career ladder becomes all-consuming, even if it means jettisoning fundamental principles. Take, for instance, a study from 2009, reported in the academic journal Gender in Management. The study’s purpose was to find out how women felt about working for women. The results were devastating.
Positions of Power
To be sure, women in general thought women were good managers. Yet women did not want to work for them. In fact, the longer women worked in the same job, the more they preferred working for a male supervisor. The study’s authors surmised that this might have something to do with “females’ perceptions of female managers as being high in dominance.”
“High in dominance” more often than not translates into treating subordinates in a haughty and demeaning fashion. A recent study from the University of Arizona found that women in the workplace experienced more “uncivility” from women than men in position of power. As a result, women reported lower well-being (job satisfaction, psychological vitality) and increased work withdrawal. A 2011 survey of legal secretaries found that not one of them wanted to work with female partners. Among the reasons given was that they were treated in a demeaning fashion, serving as “a punching bag.” The article caused considerable consternation among its readers, forcing its editors to issue a “mild apology for the hurt feelings.”
Workplace harassment is a major and very costly societal problem today, whose negative psychological impact on its victims cannot be underestimated. A decade ago, a workplace survey found that occupational harassment was four times more prevalent than sexual harassment and racial discrimination. Yet, compared to the latter, workplace harassment continues to be taken less than seriously. As a result, it is rarely reported, either because the victim has a sense that nothing will change anyway, or because she fears retaliation, or because it is “so antithetical to the way [women] are supposed to behave to other women.” As a result, they suffer quietly or leave.
The reality is that when it comes down to it, institutions are more concerned about preserving and defending their reputation than the well-being of their staff — no matter what. Take the case of UNICEF: In 2019, in response to an internal report, women charged that at UNICEF there was a prevalence of an “old boys’ club” culture where harassment and bullying were rampant. The situation was similar at other international bodies. The World Health Organization, for instance, reported in 2019 that harassment cases were up more than 90% compared to 2017. To what degree the perpetrators were women is unknown, but presumably non-negligible.
A recent report by the Workplace Bullying Institute, an American advocacy group, found that a third of workplace bullies were women. This marked a noticeable decline compared to a decade earlier, when four out of 10 workplace harassers were women. What had not changed, however, were the targets. In both instances, women preferred to bully women in around 70% of the cases. (In the case of male bullies, the situation was different: Whereas 10 years ago, men were “equal opportunity” harassers, by now they converged with female harassers).
To be sure, female-on-female harassment is far less prevalent than male-on-female harassment. However, as a 2012 Forbes article charged, when it comes down to it, women are “the worst kind of bullies,” apparently more vicious and nastier than their male counterparts.
Cecilia Harvey, a London-based consultant with HSBC global banking who has done extensive research on workplace bullying, calls this behavior “queen bee syndrome.” It “arises when women treat their female colleagues in a demoralising manner, either by undermining them or using their social stature to manipulate others into thinking less of them.” In a recent article, Harvey suggests that these “queen bees” are the “adult versions of the mean girls from school” who make the lives of the “uncool” girls miserable.
Only this is not high school, and the repercussions can be devastating. As Harvey puts it, women bullies “can have lasting negative effects on both individual careers and entire organizations. The Queen Bee syndrome can be the biggest hindrance to women advancing in the workplace.” Harvey confirms the charge made in the Forbes article. Women, she notes, while not necessarily “overtly aggressive with one another,” instead “use their social intelligence to manipulate relationships or damage the reputations of others.” Women’s “socially aggressive behaviors include gossiping, social exclusion, social isolation, social alienation, and talking about someone with others.”
What accounts for this behavior? Harvey suggests a number of reasons, most prevalently the need to be taken seriously in a male-dominated environment; compensating for a deep sense of insecurity given the fact that women still have to be twice as good as a man to find acceptance; or simply the need to be the unchallenged one “on top.” This jibes with the observation that successful career women, once they have reached the top, “promptly haul up the ladder right behind them.” This involves not only “tactically” avoiding helping other women to advance but also resorting to “passive-aggressive behavior to protect their interests.”
These might be explanations, but they should not serve as excuses. Workplace harassment, whether by men or by women, is both unacceptable and indefensible behavior which should be sanctioned promptly and vigorously, if necessary, by firing the perpetrator. Driving subordinates to the point where they are grateful for not having murdered their superior by the end of the day borders on the criminal and should be dealt with accordingly.
There is, perhaps, a certain irony to the fact that many of today’s leading institutions, such as major companies, universities and international organizations, have come up with hiring policies and guidelines designed to significantly increase the number of senior-level female staff. The United Nations, for instance, has set the goal of reaching gender parity, particularly at the highest levels, by 2026. This obviously poses a potentially major problem. More women in senior positions means — if the statistics cited earlier are a genuine reflection of reality — more women in positions of power where they can bully female staff with impunity. Not necessarily a development in line with all these UN statements on “empowering women.”
Agatha Christie’s alter ego Ariadne Oliver is known for her exasperated complaint, “If only a woman were head of Scotland Yard.” This was a time when it was still believed (or perhaps not, I don’t really know) that having a woman in charge would somehow, miraculously, make the world a better place.
The Margaret Thatchers, Hilary Clintons and, for that matter, Marine Le Pens of this world have — hopefully — disabused us of this illusion. If the head of Scotland Yard were a woman today, the likelihood that she would drive some of her female officers, who worked hard to get to where they are, to contemplate murder, suicide — or both — is, statistically speaking, non-negligible.
Women’s empowerment has gone a long way to create opportunities that women have been denied for centuries. Having women finally take their places alongside men in almost all professions has been tipping the balance toward gender equality, albeit with a long way still to go. But the idea of female solidarity — and even a sisterhood — in its idealism tends to ignore the darker side of human nature, with its competitiveness, selfishness and ambition that we are all liable to fall prey to, regardless of gender.
It is about time to take workplace harassment seriously and take the necessary steps to make the workplace an environment conducive to empathy, collaboration and innovation rather than rancor, resentment and recrimination. This means that workplace harassment — no matter who does the harassing — needs to be recognized as what it is, a fundamental infringement on and violation of, the psychological integrity of the victim.
This, in turn, means that workplace harassment needs to be treated the way any other form of harassment is treated, be it sexual harassment or harassment on the basis of ethnic background, sexual orientation, disability. This means not only developing policies, rules and regulations on workplace harassment, but making sure that they are strictly enforced and vigorously sanctioned, if necessary with immediate dismissal.
*[This piece has been updated on 2/1/2020 at 11:50 GMT.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.