An age-old problem, unhealthy workplace competition between women, has many people wondering why are women so mean to each other and is there anything that can be done to change this behavior.
Unhealthy competition in the workplace and how to deal with it
In trying to discover if unhealthy competition in the workplace between women has an evolutionary component or it’s a learned behavior we contacted Tracy Vaillaincourt, Ph.D., who has been researching for years bullying across the lifespan (including bullying in the workplace.) Dr. Vaillaincourt is a Professor and Canada Research Chair, Children’s Mental Health and Violence Prevention at McMaster University in Ottawa, Canada. Her research interests include indirect/relational aggression, (including women aggression against other women,) development of aggression, social status and others. She’s the perfect person to help us answer the question “why are women so mean to each other?” and to figure out ways to deal of unhealthy competition in the workplace.
How women aggression against other women gets started
You have dedicated a lot of your research to bullying and to the answer to the eternal question: Why are women so mean to each other? Why the interest?
The way girls and women treat each other has a profound impact on their health and well being. Studies have shown that girls and women are particularly sensitive to ostracism, incivility, and the like, especially when it is directed at them by another female. My interest stems from witnessing girls and women behaving poorly toward each other and wanting this reality to be different.
Does women aggression against other women start in the playground? Or does it develop later in life?
Females begin using aggression early in life. In fact, we have data from 2 and 3 year olds showing that they withdraw love and affection from caregivers when they are angry— an early form of the ‘silent treatment’. The type of aggression girls and women use, termed indirect aggression, continues to be employed throughout the lifespan.
Is there an evolutionary component to female bullying?
I do think there is an evolutionary component to it. One reason I think this is because indirect aggression is used by girls and women across the world, even though they come from very different cultural backgrounds.
Why are women so mean to each other and the research behind it
What are some of the highlights of the research you’ve done in the last ten years on the topic of why are women so mean to each other?
- Women are particularly intolerant of sexy peers.
- Women do not want their romantic partners to be friends with sexy women.
- The use of indirect aggression is found early in life and increases with age.
- The most powerful and popular girls in middle school and high school are also the ones nominated by peers as being the most indirectly aggressive. They also tend to be very attractive.
- Indirect aggression is linked to dating behavior—aggressive girls report having more boyfriends and more sexual experiences than their less aggressive peers.
Female bullying or women aggression against women: A psychological profile
What is the psychological profile of a woman who bullies other women?
There are many different types of women who bully others. I think the most common profile (and most vitriolic) is the very competitive and envious woman who has some sort of power that is derived either from her position in the workplace (e.g., supervisor) or from the way she interacts with her colleagues (e.g., has a lot of influence among her co-workers, is friends with the boss, is socially active, etc.). Having said this, women should be wary of competitive-envious women, as these women tend to be very toxic, especially if these traits are combined with narcissism.
Tips on dealing with unhealthy competition in the workplace
Do you have any recommendations for women who experience unhealthy competition in the workplace? For women who are bullied by other women at work?
Workplace bullying prevention programs often require employees to address their bullying concerns directly to their supervisors; which does not take into account that a lot of bullies are supervisors. Also, a lot of workplace bullying is within gender (women bullying women) and when this is mentioned to a male supervisor, it often gets dismissed as women just being ‘catty’ without recognizing the seriousness of the behavior. My suggestion for women being bullied by other women (or men) is to document everything. If possible, create alliances with other co-workers who can help defend you or be called to testify on your behalf if needed. Finally, find a sympathetic supervisor/manager and address the concern early on— before it becomes entrenched.
What are you working on now in terms of research?
I continue to examine bullying across the lifespan. I am currently interested in the links between dieting behavior and indirect aggression in girls and women, as well as the biological underpinnings of bullying.
You can reach Dr. Vaillancourt via:
- Twitter: tvaillancourt13
- Webpage: http://psych.mcmaster.ca/vaillancourt/home.html
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