So what can a man teach me about female-to-female bullying? (aka relational aggression).
That is a good question, why should anyone listen to my opinion around something I’ve had very little exposure to?
If you’ve read my previous articles you will understand that my opinions are based around truth (or for those in the relative camp, what I believe to be “most true”). I attempt to learn objective truth through evidence, logical reasoning or a combination of both. This means that my opinions are reasonably educated, rather than just being “feelings”.
Truth has no agenda, and neither do I – other than learning it. If you are able to provide counter evidence or logic that indicates my reasoning is incorrect, please get in touch to discuss.
To get to the truth of this topic, I have researched what many women and some men have to say on the topic and will attempt to paraphrase it all in this reasonably short article.
It is my hope that one or more women will read this, understand more about the topic and be better equipped to either stop the bullying cycle (even a little) within their social circle(s) or distance themselves from it to avoid further hurt.
I have noticed an increasing number of women complaining about being bullied or harassed by other women. The victim in every scenario always feels the same – utterly confused, and asks the same question – why? why don’t women build each other up instead of tearing each other down?
So, the first thing I did was try to ascertain whether these claims that ‘women tear each other down’ were true – and there were plenty of studies and research on the topic supporting the claim. I’ll do my best to link the sources at the bottom.
Let’s start with some interesting study/research results;
- 50% of sexist harassment toward women on Twitter was by other women
- Women target other women twice as often as they do men
- Men are more “equal opportunists” with their bullying targets
- 90% of women who are bullied by female colleagues will lose or leave their job as a result
It appears that yes, the issue is widespread. Its international and it’s getting worse in correlation with the prevalence of social media.
A UK study specifically monitored the words ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ by UK Twitter users over a 3-week period. 6,500 unique users were targeted by 10,000 explicitly aggressive tweets. Interestingly, in the same 3-week period, 80,000 international Twitter users were targeted by 200,000 aggressive tweets using the same terms.
In both these cases, 50% of the harassment toward women was by other women.
Bullying seems to stem from schoolyard behaviour, where kids would exclude other kids that looked, acted or spoke differently. Cheryl Dellasega, Women’s Study Professor at Pennsylvania State University and author of “Mean Girls Grown Up” stated in a recent article that “many women never outgrow being a bully”. Even as adults, bullying still literally occurs in the schoolyard. Parent’s that drop their kids off at school are often the targets of gossip, and are excluded from play dates, parties, playgroups etc. but the problem here is that this bullying also affects the children.
From day dot, children watch, observe and learn from interactions between their parents and other adults. If their parents use bullying, the child also learns to use bullying, and the cycle continues.
One explanation as to why it occurs could be that females are often clustered together in particular industries, such as early childhood teaching, retail, nursing, or woman-heavy departments such as HR or PR. In terms of the schoolyard, if you have children, observe the ratio between men and women dropping their children off the next time you drop your child off at school. In most cases, its 90% women.
Many believe bullying is actually equal between the sexes and women simply have more opportunity for same-sex bullying due to this clustering.
This theory could be supported by research that shows any single-gender-dominated workplace is more prone to bullying compared to a workplace with balanced number of males and females. One article states, “the average child care centre is a battlefield, just like the average mine site”.
Phyllis Chesler, feminist and author of the classic work “Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman”, argues that “the feminist view that women are morally superior to men, are compassionate, nurturing, maternal and also very valiant under siege” is pure myth. To paraphrase, Chesler’s believes that yes, girls are mean. Really, really mean. Not because they’re female necessarily, but because they’re human.
“The aggressive behaviour just gets a little more polished and subtle as we get older”, says Phyllis.
So, after decades of feminist triumphs, is sisterhood dead?
HOW IT HAPPENS
Men primarily bond with activities, right? Men go out for a beer, get together at the pub, play video games together or go surfing together to name a few examples.
Of course, women do this as well but it’s not how they primarily bond. Women look for emotional intimacy. They love meaningful talk, love to share their thoughts and open their hearts. In light of this, the quickest way for a woman to hurt another woman, is via relational aggression.
Instead of a punch or a shove, they will purposefully deny a social connection to another woman, by excluding them and/or mocking them.
Rachel Simmons, expert on female aggression and author of “The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence” states that “For women and girls, relationships are a source of solace and power. Female friendships are one of the greatest comforts and the greatest weapons. The heart of female psychological violence is to destroy other people’s relationships”.
Unfortunately, technology such as Twitter and Facebook has added a whole lot more to the female bully’s arsenal. Rachel again goes on to say “Social media plugs right in to women’s anxiety about direct conflict. A tweet or text allows us to communicate without having to look at each other in the eyes, and with so much emotion bottled up, you can let it rip and say things you wouldn’t dare if you were dealing with a person face-to-face”. This is backed up by the fact that women are out-tweeting and out-friending men by 10%.
WHY IT HAPPENS
This is the area of research on most topics I find most interesting – “why do we do, what we do?”. Human behavior is so interesting, and when it comes to bullying, it seems there is no single firm explanation, but rather a multitude of possible explanations. Some are common sense, and some are a little ‘out there’.
It’s often said that the best predictor of future behavior, is relevant past behavior, so let’s take a brief look at the past. Bullying in general has primitive roots – but imagine bullying between females thousands of years ago. What would it have looked like and why would it have occurred?
Historians believe bullying would have (and might still be) rooted in female biology, as there was always competition to fight for that male who would ‘provide and protect’. There was also a need for female alliances, so many women would have reached out toward other women as a source of safety and comfort. Bullying between females has mostly always been about ostracizing an individual thereby removing that safety net that other females provided. By withholding emotional support, the victim loses her connection to a perceived source of comfort. The perpetrator, by domineering the members of the group and dictating who is part of the group, feels an increased sense of safety that comes with being a social group leader.
Feminist and author Phyllis Chesler argues women feel oppressed “not because men beat up on us, but because we don’t want to be shunned by our little cliques”.
An example of one of the ‘out there’ explanations comes from Jon Manger, a Florida State University psychologist who suggests that women can smell their perceived competition when they are ovulating. “Based on our testosterone findings, one could speculate that women exposed to the scent of ovulation might become more antagonistic or competitive”.
THE MALE GAZE
Angel Jordan, Creative Director at Simonedigital.com suspects women fall prey to creating a version of themselves that a man is going to aggressively desire. To make it easy to visualize this theory, let’s imagine a woman called Amy who is trying to create a version of herself that she considers more desirable to men. Amy will use makeup, heels, engineered photos on social media and so on.
Enter Danielle, another woman who Amy perceives is more desirable than herself in some way, whether it be because she is taller, fitter, thicker or smarter for example.
Amy isn’t seeing Danielle for who Danielle actually is.
Amy is seeing Danielle as what Amy isn’t.
(Took me a second to understand this too)
Danielle could be bad ass, and would likely be an amazing friend, but Amy is only seeing the parts of Danielle that she perceives is superior somehow, and feeling like she’s coming up short. Amy feels threatened that Danielle’s superior height or curves may cause the “male gaze” to shift away from the version of herself she’s built.
In many cases, there doesn’t even have to be a male in the office or vicinity. Women often dress for each other, and put makeup on for each other. Sure, some men like red lips and heels, but many men also prefer a bare face and couldn’t tell the difference between $10 or $200 jeans. Women strut their stuff to show off for women as much – if not more – than for men.
Unfortunately, many women will often build themselves up by knocking each other down. The fact is, making someone feel alone or rejected by treating them as an outcast can be as vicious as a physical assault.
HOW YOU CAN RESPOND
I’m a big believer in personal responsibility, honesty and truth – and so is Sophia Nelson, author of “The Woman Code”, and an award-winning author and journalist, radio and television personality and motivational speaker.
Be willing to have “courageous” conversations.
“This is a tough one for us”, says Nelson. “We need to be willing to say to another woman that we didn’t like something she did or said and do it in a respectful and private way where we are still building her up, not pulling her down”.
“Don’t go tell 10 of your friends not to like her. You’d be amazed at how silly we can be. We’re still in kindergarten some of us,” said Nelson. “Gossip is still one of the most rampant, nasty things we do as women to each other. And it hurts. It really damages women.”
Sandra Sully also speaks for many when she says that if she had her time over again, she would call out bullies much, much sooner. She counts her failure to do so as one of the biggest mistakes of her career. “It would have made my life so much easier if I just could have said, ‘I’m being bullied. By this person. This is what they’re doing.’ It’s a term that employers are finally starting to understand.”
It’s said far too often, but life is too short to be dealing with this kind of behavior.
You must also ask yourself whether the bullying is related to a dispute, or whether its just predatory. In most cases, dispute-based harassment can be resolved, but predatory harassment will almost never be resolved if the courageous conversation has no effect.
You could view predatory harassment with empathy, as often it’s simply a projection of the bully’s insecurities. Responding to bullying with a statement intended to compliment the bully can be a tactic. It’s a “turn the other cheek” maneuver designed to assist the bully in viewing themselves differently. Assist them in increasing their own self-worth and confidence, and point them toward dominating their own universe and not everyone else’s.
If you have done all you can personally to resolve the situation, there’s obviously other people you can report it to, such as HR in the workplace. As of 2014, workers who believe they are being targeted can apply to the Fair Work Commission for a stop order. Action can also be taken through state Health and Safety authorities and the Australian Human Rights Commission.
You might be a bully and only realising it after reading this, or you might be (or have been) a victim and were unsure how to handle it. I hope this article assists in providing some understanding why this phenomenon is happening and how to deal with it.
As always, be good to yourself.