Women who bully in the workplace.

Yes – some women bully. Yes – some powerful women bully.  And yes – it can be related to toxic masculine culture.  Sometimes.

I was recently asked by a reporter to give my opinion on women bullying women in the workplace. 

First – bullying is about power and control. It is about having the ability to deem someone as part of the ingroup or part of the outgroup.  In other words, a bully gets their power by including some people and excluding others.

Women who are the first to do whatever, to succeed, may have to adopt the traits of the dominant bully – to be accepted by them and to function.  I think there was some research done that showed, this dynamic is more prevalent when there are fewer women competing for scares roles and resources, than in situations where there are more women and the competition is more – friendly and collaborative.

But we do see this – queen bee – dynamic is women only groups as well. And what is happening is the same. It’s about creating control. Who is included and who is excluded. And aggression and bullying, allows them to control who is in and who is out.  That dynamic has nothing to do with toxic masculinity. Both men and women play this game. Men tend to do it more overtly, women – more covertly. But both men and women bully in roughly equal amounts. It’s just rare to see women bully using the same techniques men use. We only see that when there is only one or two women in a group that is otherwise dominated by a toxic male who bullies.  So let’s define toxic masculinity as – sexist bullying. 

Let’s turn to the questions

There's been a surge in toxic masculinity around women

No – there has not. What is happening is women aren’t’ tolerating sexist bullying anymore and what we are seeing is a surge in reporting of incidences – not a surge in sexist bullying. It’s always been there – and honestly – it used to be a lot worse. It’s better now – because people are reporting and talking about it. The surge is in women’s willingness to reporting it.

How does toxic masculinity impact women in power in the workplace?

Women are impacted by toxic masculinity because some men are sexist and use sexist bullying to keep women out of positions of power or to exclude them from decision making processes. Men are impacted by this too by the way.  Anytime they are put down as being too – feminine in some way – they are a victim of toxic masculinity that sees gender roles as rigid and that degrades and devalues females and holds masculinity as the ideal. This is a form of sexist bullying. It impacts both genders.  It’s purpose is to control ingroup and outgroups – or inclusion vs. exclusion in the decision making process.

Is this the only reason they're bullies?

No. People bully because it works to create control over group dynamics.  Toxic masculinity/sexist bullying is generally a more masculine form of bullying, but women bullying too and for the same reasons. The form the bullying takes, depends on what is considered socially acceptable. It is well known that a bullying boss, creates a bullying culture where people try to emulate the boss to curry favor. It is in these situations that a woman might engage in sexist bullying, more than say – passive aggressive behavior.

What can workplaces do to combat this? What steps must be taken?

Workplaces need to learn how to make unwanted behavior – like bullying stop. There is a behavioral science protocol called – extinguishing a behavior that they need to learn. It’s slightly technical – but most people can understanding. For any stimulus – you can respond in a positive, negative or neutral way. If you want to eliminate a behavior – neutral is what works. And then how often you do this – consistently or variably. Consistency works – variably makes the unwanted behavior stronger.  And finally, you need to know that when you remove the reward for the unwanted behavior, the behavior will escalate for a bit. This is predicted and is known as an extinction burst or blow out. The key to making unwanted behavior stop – is to manage the extinction burst through to completion. Meaning – you have to keep removing the reward 100% of the time through the escalation and increase the cost associated with the behavior. There is no way to address this once and succeed, you have to keep on it until the behavior stops and that can take a few weeks. As for steps to take – I normally recommend training HR, then upper management. Then – redo your processes to maximize behavioral extinction. Then – train middle management and then lower management on the new processes and expectations. Then – train staff and then manage the change process over the next year as people start to use the system. You have to positively reward people who report and manage the extinction process. The reason you have to have executive buy in – is because – some people won’t be able to change. Maybe only one or to in any group of 100. But they will have to be let go and if there is not a willingness to do that – there is no point in going through this process.

 Have you ever been impacted by toxic masculinity from a woman?

Yes. I had fired a toxic volunteer at a non-profit I used to work at and she retaliated and got a few of my fellow directors (also female) to attack me. And I was accused of sexual misconduct among other things. Even if I had done what they had accused me of (coming on to the son of a donor – which I hadn’t – the mother had asked me out on behalf of her son – which was sweet but weird).  But even if I had flirted and come on to this young man – there was literally nothing wrong with me doing that.  So the attack was just sexist nonsense. They also accused me of wearing slutty clothes to a fundraising event – which I hadn’t. You get the idea. These were overt sexist attacks on me – and were designed to get the men running the organization to think less of me. In other words, they were hoping that the men in charge of our non-profit were sexist and so they could manipulate them against me. It didn’t work. Mostly – because those men – weren’t sexist in the slightest - and I hadn’t done any of the things I had been accused of.

What steps did you take to resolve this?

First – I had allies. Lots of allies. And I had those allies because I am fundamentally honest and caring and helpful and professional. The allegations made against me – were things that no one really believed and that were easily disproved. Most importantly – I had allies among the male leadership of the organization. The sexist attacks against me were targeting them to get them to think less of me as a woman by painting me as a dishonorable woman with a quite normal sex drive – because apparently – being interested in men as a young single woman – makes one – dishonorable. Seriously – the whole thing was stupid. Anyway – when the attacks came, my allies warned me of the rumors and that allowed me to prepare my defense – which was to basically tell the truth – no – I had not hit on this guy – he hit on me and had his mom come into my office to ask me out on his behalf – to which – I said no – I already had a boyfriend. And to address the clothing choice charges – which was quite easy – because the night in question – I had been with my boss – a man – for 7 hours while wearing that cocktail dress my mother bought me and he couldn’t remember what it looked like – so it was definitely – not inappropriately sexy. I just happened to be skinny and beautiful and that isn’t a crime.  I’m not going to lie, it was an incredibly unpleasant thing to go through. I thought about quitting. But I had been hired – specifically to change the culture of the organization and I was succeeding which is why I was attacked. I had allies who really liked the changes that had occurred, and they worked to protect me and gave me encouragement to stay because they needed me to stay and succeed. If it had not been for the allies – I would have quit. It was really seriously unpleasant.

What advice do you have for companies to fix toxic masculinity in their workplace when it comes to women abusing their power?

First – don’t just focus on toxic masculinity.  Focus on toxic culture period. Women don’t engage in toxic sexist bullying unless they believe that is what the men want. So toxic culture, bullying of any sort – sexist, racist or whatever ist – cannot be tolerated – ever.  Learn what is required to make unwanted behavior stop. Change your processes for handling these things to maximize behavioral extinction, then train everyone. And commit to the change process. When you take power away from people who are using bullying and harassment to create power – they will fight you. Be prepared for that and be prepared to fire anyone who doesn’t adapt the new ways of being. Most people will be super glad the culture is changing. The few that resist will eventually get on board. The people who fight it – actively – and whose behavior gets substantially worse – will need to be fired. Without a realistic willingness to do this – don’t even try.

My main lesson for leaders who want to change the culture? Recruit in change agents. Be honest with them about what needs to change and why. Actively protect your change agents from the attacks – which are predicted to occur (make sure they know they are needed and appreciated so they don’t quit on you). Only then – will you succeed.

Yes - I did get quoted in the article - forbes.com/sites/heidilynnekurter/2020/02/19/women-bullied-at-work-heres-why-your-female-boss-dislikes-you/

More importantly - if you want to learn how to make workplace bullying stop - while still maintaining your professionalism - take this online course - https://humanistlearning.com/how-to-humanistically-handle-bad-bullying-bosses/  or get the book/audiobook

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