All grown-up, but no better-behaved

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Woman-on-woman Bullying in the Workplace

If you've ever been shot repeated glares at work, omitted from an e-mail chain or meeting where you should have been included or received a humiliating public lecture that could have just as easily been delivered behind closed doors, then you were likely up against a workplace bully. In 2007, the Workplace Bullying Institute released a survey that showed just how common this phenomenon is; according to the survey, 37 percent of U.S. workers have been bullied on the job. As on the playground, bullies are more likely to be male than female (60 percent of perpetrators were male), and the bully is usually the boss.

What many news outlets jumped on when this story came out, however, is how frequently women pick on other women. While males in the workplace will bully other males and females at equal numbers, female bullies will go after someone of the same gender 70 percent of the time [source: Klaus]. Discussions of why this problem exists involves considering some gender stereotypes about how we expect women to behave.

For example, bullies, no matter their gender, go after those who are less likely to fight back. Because women are sometimes thought to be more docile and less combative, both men and women may exploit that perceived weakness when they pick their targets [source: WBI]. Another explanation portends that women are more sensitive to criticism, making them more likely to hold grudges and act on them later [source: Klaus]. Some argue that women, relatively new to the corporate, office environment, haven't learned the fine art of competition, or have adopted male-identified behaviors, like bullying, to get ahead [source: Meece]. Because they are new in the workplace, it's also possible that their behavior is being overanalyzed, and the slightest deviation from the stereotype of a nurturing female is considered bullying [source: Meece]. On the other hand, because women are new to positions of leadership, it's possible they don't want to help the women who may replace them [source: Klaus].

The Workplace Bullying Institute contends that since most bullies are bosses, and because many women tend to be in charge of other women, the bullied subordinates are doomed by virtue of having a female boss. A 2009 study published in Psychological Science found that bully bosses (male or female) tend to lash out when they feel inferior and unqualified for their position [source: Callaway]. While this provides a lowly worker with a tip for dealing with a bully in charge (flattery), it also echoes some of those earlier theories as to why women bully other women. Because women, racing to crash the glass ceiling, are still token females around the office, their behavior might be scrutinized far more than a male's. If a female has faced difficulties in getting to her position of leadership, she may still face doubts about her staying power in a male-dominated world. So, in a somewhat vicious cycle, such a female may return to that emotional manipulation she picked up at age 4: bullying.