Compliments of Jeffrey via Flickr

Compliments of Jeffrey via Flickr

In the 2014 Zogby survey, Namie reported that 69% of workplace bullies are male – with 57% percent of those targeting women. Surprisingly, a large proportion of targets from female bullies were women as well (68%). Why would women choose to denigrate their own gender? A telling explanation from Porath, Overbeck, and Pearson (2008) lies in perceived status differences – with status incongruency theory (Fernandez, 1981) suggesting that race and gender exist in a nested hierarchy.

Manifestations of status differential at work (in terms of gendered power dynamics) results in both men and women hurling the preponderance of uncivil acts at women. This may explain why women (from whom overt aggression is deemed unacceptable), sometimes jockey for status by undermining or sabotaging one another – because this activity is seen as a more admissible low stakes game, and because it may even, in some organizations, be viewed as a rite of passage for women who want to attain “fit” (Kanter & Stein, 1980). Because of the perceived pecking order (and because they are more likely to accept and acclimate to second class status (Porath, Overbeck, & Pearson, 2008)), women tend to avoid their aggressors, and to eschew direct confrontation when unfairly challenged.

Perhaps lower status players see dings against their own as a potential way to advance – sabotage through expressing dissatisfaction in covert ways that make it difficult for their targets to confront, bypassing expectations of norms for mutual respect when it comes to ambushing a perceived pushover whom they know peers won’t support. The sad fact is that “Os” who target their own simply reinforce unbalanced power dynamics at work (“A Tale of O;” Kanter, 1986). A cohort that is seen as internally divisive, silent when one is attacked (and unashamed to engage in negative gossip regarding other “O” individuals) affirms dominant players in an elevated rank, along with stereotypes of “Os” not getting along with one another.

“O” divisiveness may be a mask for greater behavioral latitude afforded “Xs,” who – as a result of their conditioning and cultural expectations – can be viewed as legitimate and even righteous when they verbally explode. Hence we are more likely to rationalize their responses and blame targets (Porath, Overbeck, & Pearson, 2008).

Rules and civility policies for appropriate meeting conduct, supportive responses and questions that advance the firm’s agenda (as opposed to elevating an individual’s solitary ego) and consequences for crossing the line are necessary to ensure that all organizational voices are heard, and that what is heard respects norms of civility. Meetings, seen as free for alls in which it’s OK to verbally attack certain persons – combined with abusers who digress into mobbers and proceed without punishment – are antithetical to accomplishing productive work.



A Tale of O.

Fernandez, J. (1981). Managing a diverse workforce. Lexington Massachusetts: Lexington Books.

Kanter, R. M., & Stein, B. A. (1980). A Tale of O: On being different in an organization. New York: HarperCollins.

Porath, C. L., Overbeck, J. R., & Pearson, C. M. (2008). Picking up the gauntlet: How individuals respond to status challenges. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38(7), 1945-1980.

Why women are the worst kind of bullies.

Women working with women: Support and sabotage.


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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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