herald

Tuesday 25 September 2018

"Women more likely to be bullied at work by other women"

While the boys' club offers support to male colleagues, why are women so slow to encourage each other at work

IT was one of my first real jobs, marked by celebrations with friends and congratulatory cards from family. The first few days went by in a blur of new faces, systems and challenges. Asking a question of a female colleague, I was surprised when she walked away as I was mid-sentence. Unfortunately, this was to be the start of a pattern of behaviour by a small group of female co-workers. They excluded, criticised and, on occasion, were downright hostile.

 

One day after a particularly bruising episode, I made a personal vow, that if I ever found myself being that hateful towards younger women, then I would give up work.

With the prism of time, that feeling of being marginalised and isolated feels like it happened to another person, but I have never forgotten the promise I made. Not even when years later I met one of the clique at a social function and found her owning up to her behaviour without being in the slightest bit apologetic.

"Women can be awful witches," she said airily, "we thought you'd leave, but fair dues you didn't".

Research shows that while men mentor right through their working life, women will only help other women when they are at the end of their career.

It isn't just that at that stage a younger woman poses less of a threat. Women cite the fact that for most of their working lives they are too busy between home and work to help others. They also rarely feel confident enough in their own position to encourage what may be a potential rival.

Bullying

Women are also more likely to be bullied at work by other women, with about 70pc of those who have been bullied saying that it was by a fellow female. Sit any group of professional women who work in the same area around a table and they will have horror stories to tell.

One leading light of feminism, now deceased, was renowned for the number of women to be found crying in the toilets in the organisation she ran.

Another media darling would regularly ring back when she was out of the office and make outlandish requests with impossible deadlines. The strategy being that the staff would have little time to relax and plot a coup if they were running around like headless chickens.

During the heady Celtic tiger years one female high flyer had a unique way of signaling her pleasure or displeasure with her mainly female staff. Every time she received a corporate gift, she would waltz around her minions saying 'now who will I pass this onto today, who has been particularly good'. The recipient had little time to enjoy the largesse, knowing that the rest of her colleagues were waiting to extract their revenge on the chosen one as soon as the boss left.

It's not that women have the monopoly on bad behaviour, but that the whole co-operative way of working, which was a mantra of the women's movement, seems to die a death when dealing with office politics.

While men have the advantage of the boys club as a support structure, women are more isolated. They also carry the burden of being expected to 'play nice', even when they are being shafted and sidelined.

Ask many women why they don't go for promotion, and they will trot out the usual lines, worry about family commitments, feeling they don't have enough experience, not wanting to be the ones ordering about their co-workers who are often also their friends.

The list is endless and often it's a combination of all of these fears and quandaries. But there's also another underlying reason: in most jobs women managers will be in the minority, so they won't have a network of people they can ask for advice or whom they can emulate.

Men have no problem asking the person they have just replaced to go for pints, or socialising with workmates they don't particularly like. They know that it's the informal information gathering that happens after work that can give them the edge when it comes to advancing their career.

Every man who is a manager also has a coterie who will shamelessly cosy up to them. A woman, on the other hand, will find it hard to hold onto her friends if she moves up a grade. Men reward supporters, women fear being accused of favouritism.

Sabotage

Various studies on women and leadership signal the fact that female bosses are less critical of men under their charge than women, but in their defence, they also say that women bosses believe that other women are more likely to try and undermine them.

US-based corporate consultant Meredith Fuller calls it non-verbal sabotage, the means by which exclusion, cliques and gossiping can make a woman executive's life a misery.

But there are other reasons women believe it is their responsibility to solve everything.

One of the best pieces of advice I received from a close woman friend in relation to managing others was, "you can't carry the whole world on your little shoulders". It's one I freely pass on to other women when they refuse to delegate and then complain that they are left to do everything.

If you suffer from what might loosely be termed 'Lisa Simpson syndrome' then you will probably have faced the over-achieving woman's dilemma, being seen as both difficult and hard-working, with one often cancelling out the other.

In one classic Simpsons episode, school swot Lisa is outraged when she reads what Principal Skinner has written on her permanent record, "an outstanding student with a tendency towards know-it-all-itis".

"Know-it-all-itis, that's not even a word," a shaken Lisa scoffs. Her friend Millhouse, meanwhile, does what boys often do with criticism, he tears out the page and throws it away.

Micromanage

Women who climb the career ladder usually have one significant trait in common, what can be described as 'best girl' disorder. This is the irrational belief that if they don't micromanage everything and everyone around them, then they are one step away from losing head-girl status.

This doesn't make them easy to work with. Add to that the normal way women bond over shared confidences, and imagine how when work and promotion are involved, that knowledge and intimacy can prove explosive.

Talk to parents of teenage girls and they will tell you horror stories of how girls are intimidated and abused by other girls on social media. They also point to a level of unkindness that they do not remember from their own teenage years.

Traits like intelligence and inner decency are being supplanted by the need to create a fake online image where physical appearance is paramount.

Transfer that to the workplace in the coming decades and the future looks even grimmer. So how can we change things?

For a start we can lead by example. We can mentor and help each other. If a promotion comes up, encourage a woman to go for it. If a younger woman looks like she needs help, give it to her.

Every inspiring woman has an exponential affect on others. It's not just employers who have to take woman-on-woman bullying as seriously as they do other allegations of bad behaviour. We have to help our daughters move beyond the 'mean girls' by highlighting what real friendship and support should involve.

Perfection

Every year I give the same talk to new undergraduates and postgraduates. I tell them that the people in their class are their network for life, that they should not talk disparagingly about others on social media, and that our graduates are often the source of work for their colleagues.

But I can't help noticing how so many young girls, in particular, are cursed with the disease of expecting to achieve perfection in everything they do.

I also remind them that good feedback is never personal, because I am aware that their past experiences of what other women have said about them or to them may not have been positive.

And sometimes I tell them about broad caster Olivia O'Leary, the woman who inspired my career choice and how years later I finally got the opportunity to work with her on a documentary about John Hume.

Remembering the old adage about how you should never meet your heroes I was nervous at that first production meeting.

Her knowledge of every key event in Northern Irish politics left everyone around the table feeling a little redundant. But her reaction to a young female producer's openly expressed dismay was telling.

"I only know it because I've lived it, in the same way that you will know about everything that's happening now, and some young woman years from now will be amazed at your recall as well," she explained.

That is the kind of generosity and encouragement that should be a template for all women in the workplace. Because it shows how influential a good mentor can be, and how women who support other women, like Olivia and many others, have a special place in our hearts, if not in heaven ...

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