The XX Factor

Say No to Mean Girls-and Women

I get what you say , Meghan, about the benefits of broadening the range of publicly-noted female roles beyond those old standbys, “nurturer” and “supporter.” But I can’t share your pleasure in the finding that 40 percent of workplace bullies are women . After all, isn’t “bitch”-or even “office bitch”-just as much a stereotype as “nurturer”? Judging from The Devil Wears Prada and Working Girl , two of many fictional studies in the vicissitudes inflicted by female bosses on their (ultimately triumphant) female underlings, this particular stereotype is well established in the cultural consciousness. We even know without thinking what these witchy characters look like, right down to the thin lips and the pointy, expensive shoes.

This is part of what Catalyst found in Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t , its report on the challenges faced by women trying to ascend the corporate ladder. Viewed as either too soft or too tough depending on their willingness to practice stereotypical feminine-read “nurturing”-behaviors as opposed to more aggressive, stereotypically masculine ones, the report notes that women have great difficulty avoiding the perception that they’re either nice but not very competent or competent but not very nice, especially in the rarefied upper echelons of the corporate world. (Another striking Catalyst finding: only 2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women).

In light of the bullying study, though, I think Catalyst may be letting women off easy by suggesting that they’re tagged as aggressive, tough or mean simply because they act male. It seems likely that the awkwardness for women of finding comfortable and acceptable ways to operate in male-dominated fields contributes to their bullying. But at base, women who bully are just women behaving badly-something for which they should be criticized, not cheered. While I’ve been lucky enough to work with many supportive women, few things in my professional life have been more upsetting than encountering women, usually in positions of authority, who seemed determined to keep other women down. (It should be noted that, as the study suggests, they did not exhibit the same behavior toward men.) These women’s reasons were no doubt many and various, but their meanness was unmistakable, and it felt like a particularly exquisite betrayal.