Watch Out for the Woman Bully Boss

By Sandra Ford Walston

Forty percent of bullies are women, and when women are bullies, they choose women as targets 71% of the time. Sadly, when the bully finds his or her target, the target pays with his or her job.

female bully bosses

photo: femme-o-nomics

That’s according Dr. Gary Namie who started The Workplace Bullying Institute in 1998 after his wife, Ruth, experienced bullying firsthand at the hands of a female supervisor. That sour experience prompted their research into bullying to support the passage of laws to curtail workplace abuses.  In fact, they say the need is even greater today since their research shows that women are now being bullied by other women 80% of the time, a 9 percent increase in six years.

What’s worst, if the target has the courage to confront the bully, the target will usually lose her job. Most of the time, it is same sex harassment. Gary observes, “Over one in three (37%) American workers suffer bullying while another 12% witness it. That’s 71.5 million Americans who know full well what bullying is. If the bully’s a woman, she can pick on women all she wants.” 1

The Namies write, “Chronic bullies end careers and shatter the emotional lives of their targets… We know that eighty-nine percent of bullies are bosses … workplace politicians. Their goal is simple—to control people they target. To do this, they engage in a variety of tactics… They all serve to shame, humiliate, and treat the target like a powerless person.” 2

L.E.A.D. with Integrity

Dr. David Hawkins, author of more than eight books, including the bestseller Power vs. Force, writes that bully targets experience negative emotions such as shame, guilt, apathy, grief, fear, anger.

Many of the women I’ve interviewed have experienced these emotions as a result of mean-spirited treatment. Sometimes the tactics were direct, but other times the tactics were more subtle, like gossip, which is simply another form of abuse. Phyllis Chesler, author of Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman writes:

In daily life, hostile attitudes toward a woman or to women in general are powerfully conveyed through gossip… We have seen that women are aggressive, but in indirect ways and mainly toward other women. Since women depend upon each other for intimacy, they do not acknowledge that this is the case.” 3

Yet again we encounter the obstacle of denial blocking our growth in courage and truth, not to mention our ability to encourage one another.

Both Chesler and the Namies’ research demonstrate how lying, bullying, gossiping or any other dysfunctional behaviors kill the spirit and the individual courage in any human being. Denying that we do these things only perpetuates the problem. Chesler continues,

Calling another woman a “slut,” “crazy,” “difficult,” and “enemy,” is a way to get her out of the way, punish her, break her spirit, because you envy her… What might help is a commitment not to believe everything you hear, but in fact to disbelieve it, especially if it’s something negative about another woman. It is important that a woman develop the courage to stand up to a slanderer or a bully, knowing that she risks being the next to be slandered or intimidated… The women whom I interviewed about woman’s inhumanity to woman mainly talked about how other women had disappointed or betrayed them. Few were able to recall the ways in which they had disappointed or betrayed other women. 4

Chesler does not stop there. Author of the classic Women and Madness and a leading exponent of women’s rights, Phyllis Chesler admitted that it took courage to write Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman.

To purge the infliction we deal out to our own gender and to overcome our own denial about this critical issue, Chesler offers these suggestions:

A woman might begin by acknowledging some fairly obvious truths. Like any man, she is a human being; as such, she is capable of aggression, competition, prejudice, crafty servility, insufferable vanity, envy, jealousy, cruelty, pettiness. A woman also has a ‘shadow’ side, the side she doesn’t like and wants to hide—just as a man does. Still, many women learn to pretend that they are not really aggressive or competitive because such traits are not socially desirable in women… If people wish to change their behavior, they must acknowledge their own unconscious prejudices… Such a commitment requires the courage of perseverance.”5

It is bad enough that some men—writers, bosses, colleagues, husbands, brothers and so on—exhibit misogyny and rob women of courage, but it is even more painful that women practice the same abuses on each other. “A recent Lifetime Women’s Pulse Poll shows that nearly 40 percent of women workers pass along unflattering gossip about their [female] boss. Despite giant steps up the corporate ladder, the female boss remains the star in water-cooler gossip as everyone’s favorite villain—even among other women.” 6 And the problem will lessen only when each of us begins to see past our own denial and recognize the self-truths that we prefer to avoid at all cost.

Have you experienced any of the tactics of bullies? Do you perpetuate these actions in yourself or in others? Rather than staying stuck in denial, exit bad situations quickly.

1. Relyea, Kie, “Bully bosses: Couple works to pass laws to curtail the abuses, LSJ.com, November 15, 2003, www.lsj.com/news/business/p_031115bullypatch_7c-10c.html.

2. Namie, Ruth and Gary, The Bully at Work: What you can do to stop the hurt and reclaim your dignity on the job, (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2000) 15-16 and 18.

3.Chesler, Phyllis, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2001), 151 and 462.

4. Chesler, Phyllis, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2001), 466–8.

5. Chesler, Phyllis, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2001), 473-4.

6. Rock, Maxine, “Reputation Alert,” PINK, April/May, 2007, 34-35.

Sandra Ford WalstonSandra Ford Walston is known as The Courage Expert and innovator of StuckThinking™. She is an organizational effectiveness consultant, speaker, trainer and courage coach. She is the internationally published author of bestseller COURAGE The Heart and Spirit of Every Woman (2001), the follow-up book STUCK 12 Steps Up the Leadership Ladder (2010) and the recently released FACE IT! 12 Obstacles that Hold You Back on the Job (2011). She is certified in the Enneagram and MBTI®. Please visit www.sandrawalston.com.

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