I originally set out to benchmark a client’s experience. If I had any preconceived notions, they were centred around bullying being a predominantly male activity and simply wanted to investigate corporate checks and balances, as well as any legal deterrents that dealt with this problem. I have to confess that I also secretly hoped to prove the findings of the New York Times wrong. Somewhat predictably, this sadly, was not to be.
My in-box started filling up almost immediately. Broadly speaking the responses fell into 3 categories and can be paraphrased as follows:
- Well done Dorothy for highlighting a difficult and sensitive issue which we need to acknowledge and tackle on many levels
- What on earth are you thinking Dorothy? Don’t we women have enough obstacles to progression without you dredging up this sort of stuff?
- – Heart breaking case studies, including what sounded like psychotic abuse in some instances, accompanied by pleas for support
Yes, the question of the bullying of women is sensitive. As more and more women pursue professional careers ( 60% of European graduates are now female) I actually don’t think that this is a topic we can pretend doesn’t exist. In fact I firmly believe that to do so is not only bad for women, it’s bad for business and organisational success. And it won’t go away on its own.
Annabel Kaye Managing Director or Irenicon Ltd UK tells me that victims of female bullying” leave and find another job without complaining at all. On average we find our ‘complainers’ turn out to be the sixth victim. Others come forward if our people are seen to be gaining ground. However many of our complainers settle quietly, signing ‘gagging clauses’ that mean they cannot testify if others come forward and the problem of bullying is buried once again beneath the surface … but the feeling is that it is healthier to move on rather than fight, which leaves systematic bullies and bullying institutions unchallenged and ready for their next crop of victims.
Are women more susceptible to bullying?
Sharon Eden contends “This is a far more complex situation than gender. Being susceptible to bullying also depends on psychological make-up and culture. People who are raised in families or from cultures where assertiveness is frowned on, and politeness and passivity valued, will be more at risk of being bullied in ‘Western type’ organisations.”
Anne Perschel told me “Boys in most cultures are raised with an expectation that they will be a physical aggressor or defender. This may be in the context of the hunt, an invasion or warding off intruders. Girls are not raised with such expectations. As children our play is in large part rehearsal for future roles. Girls do not rehearse for aggression to the degree that boys do. So in grown up life, when a woman is bullied, she doesn’t have the response repertoire easily available. Bullies feed on this. I’ve seen it. When a bully is on the attack, if the victim backs up in fear, the bully keeps aggressing. There have also been suggestions that testosterone is associated with more risk-taking and aggressive behaviors, so it is possible that biology plays a role as well.”.
However, it’s also about the organisational culture and what is perceived to be acceptable. My own experiences have been centred on men bullying men, but when that happened in all 3 cases the CEOs were themselves bullies and this modus operandi had become the corporate cultural norm.
Annabel reminds us that ” Often the perpetrators are oblivious to their behaviour talking about ‘strong leadership’, ‘tough decisions’ when the reality is they demonstrate the opposite. A strong organisation can tackle these issues successfully – but the fish rots from the head and often it is the board themselves that initiate behaviours that stimulate and encourage bullying. The ‘strong’ thrive on challenge – but the ‘weak’ crumble.
All the commentators I consulted agreed without exception, that women in the workplace and in leadership positions, or en route, are in a double bind. As Anne suggests “Women are expected not to be aggressive. It’s okay and expected from men. If they lead with emotional and social intelligence, they don’t get as much credit or notice as do men. We expect women to be social, communal, nurturing and supportive of others. We don’t expect it so much from men, so when they behave accordingly, they are viewed as more extraordinary than a woman who exhibits these same behaviors”
Is it just me or is there something wrong with this picture?
- Women emulating assertive male behaviour for advancement in organisations are perceived negatively… and we talk about that.
- Women not emulating male behaviour, don’t advance, are again perceived negatively … but we talk about that too.
- Women advancing themselves via “mascara mafia” tactics are actually behaving negatively, very often go unchallenged and …we don’t talk about it very much at all!
Need to highlight
So no, I don’t think that highlighting an issue that negatively impacts women’s perceptions, performance and progression in the workplace should detract from any advances we would like to make in other areas. Neither should it draw attention away from the impact of any other barriers to progression.
In the meantime, women slug it out in sub – board room roles, leading to high job turnover, reduced engagement as well as health issues. Isn’t it understandable how lower level, lower paid, lower stress jobs become attractive options when women have to factor in family considerations?
Where are the men in all of this? Well , they are still sitting pretty at the top. In these positions they will continue to define corporate norms and values and their criteria for what makes a good manager and leader will prevail. In the meantime, women will remain confused and disenchanted, below the glass ceiling.
But as in most cases women have to help themselves and each other to create more secure and meaningful professional lives and business environments, even if it means confronting and finding solutions to eliminate unacceptable behaviour within our own ranks, and putting our own “house” in order. Just as parents who find their teenager has lost his/her way or companies realise they have a product that tanked, it is not the end of the world as we know it. The instances of extreme dysfunctional abuse aside , it’s a problem that can be resolved. There are almost always solutions and we women have to find them.
Why? Because no one else is going to do it for us.
What do you think?