Everyone is against bullying. It’s become a great national cause.
Naturally, we associate bullying with male behavior. Bulls are male. Female bovines are not called bulls.
Everyone is perfectly comfortable casting opprobrium at bullies because it fits the dominant cultural narrative: the ill that men and boys do.
Being against bullying is being against aggressive, confrontational and violent behavior. The campaign allows women to assert their adherence to the feminist cause by denouncing stereotypical male behavior. It allows men to show off their kinder, gentler sides.
But, what happens when we see women bullying other women?
We ignore it.
We are inured to see the world through the lens of the dominant cultural narrative, so when we find behaviors that are not explained by the narrative, we assume that they are not real.
Sisterhood notwithstanding, one of the principle obstacles to women’s career advancement is other women. More often than not, this is ignored.
The woman who draws attention to the fact that she is being bullied will not be taken seriously, even by other women. She will be seen as a whiner and a complainer.
I am confident that there is a semi-rational feminist explanation for this phenomenon. It will end up blaming men. But, it will fail to address the problem of female bullying, because after all, if women are the more conciliatory gender how could they be bullying each other? And how do they become worse bullies once they enter the workplace?
Rushica Tulshyan calls it the worst form of bullying.
I am not so sure that it is the worst—how can you tell?—but it is especially bad because it is unacknowledged.
Since no one thinks that it's a problem, the woman who is being victimized by the bully will start thinking that she is to blame. As bad as it is to be bullied, adding self-insult and self-criticism to the injuries inflicted by the bully makes it much worse.
Tulshyan explains that we are all very aware of racial discrimination and sexual harassment. As long as they appear to show patriarchal white males as oppressors, they fit the narrative and are dealt with efficiently and effectively.
When women bully women they are more subtle. Their actions are more difficult to visualize. How can you effectively visualize or dramatize psychological and emotional damage?
A boy beats up another boy… we understand how bad it is. A group of women suddenly stops talking to another woman or starts gossiping about her… how well do we understand how bad that is.
Women bully women by gossiping, by attacking reputation, by criticizing appearance and behavior, by lying, by ostracizing, and by betraying intimate secrets.
Women are taught to think critically, Tulshyan writes, and they naturally tend to use this bad habit when relating to other women in the workplace.
Susan Tardanico offers an example:
The day after her promotion at a midsize technology company, Kathleen walked into the office and felt a distinct chill. Her female colleagues stood in clusters, whispering and glancing in her direction.
In the weeks to follow, she became the subject of office rumors. She was left out of group lunches and was suddenly out of the loop of critical information. She was decidedly alone, emotionally abandoned by the women she had considered friends; a victim caught unaware.
Were Kathleen to complain, she would sound like a whiner. She would look weak, incapable of dealing with her own problems.
A woman executive will go to great lengths not to look weak. She does not want to run to a parent surrogate to solve her problems.
Women bullying women know this; they take full advantage of it.
When women bully women they employ quiet, discreet, and subtle means.
Women, on the other hand, typically are more comfortable dealing with issues under the table – instead of being direct and “confrontational,” they’re more comfortable working their issues covertly and through other people. Sometimes this indirect form of communication can be effective when done carefully and with positive intent. The truth, however, is that it is more likely to be damaging and counterproductive as women use it to further their agenda or take revenge – predominantly against other women – by launching undercover smear campaigns, spreading malicious rumors, gossiping or icing someone out. Meanwhile, other women who may disapprove of the situation stand quietly to the side, fearful of becoming targets themselves.
When she asks what is holding women back in the workplace, she is forced to conclude that other women are a primary obstacle. Apparently, all the talk about sisterhood is just that… all talk.
In Tardanico’s words:
With all the well-documented evidence that women have a tougher time achieving career success than men do, one would think they’d be ever more supportive of one another, banding together in a shared goal of better understanding how to navigate the complex corporate ladder. If only.
As it turns out, women are often the first to criticize and sabotage one another. Scores of studies show that women are tougher on women than men are; that women treat female leaders with less respect and support than they do male leaders; that women tend to reject work submitted by other women twice as many times than the same work submitted by men. And the list goes on.