Why are Women Meaner to Other Women at Work?

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Women report getting more rude comments from coworkers than men do, so a University of Arizona study set out to figure out who was making the comments. After a series of surveys, they found that it tended to be women who were being uncivil to other women, more so than men being uncivil to women or to other men.

Now before we all erupt into a chorus of “why are women such catty bitches,” let’s talk about the weakness of the study. This was all done from surveys, asking people to rate interactions they’d had with male and female coworkers and how those interactions made them feel. So already you know that we can’t say women are more uncivil to women — we can only say, due to the fact that this is from surveys, that women perceive other women as being more uncivil to them.

Why is that important? Well, previous studies have shown that both men and women perceive women in a different light than men in the workplace. For example, a behavior that is seen as good leadership in a man can be seen as abrasive and overreaching in a woman.

So it’s possible that the women in this study are hurt by actions their female coworkers take but are fine when a male coworker demonstrates similar behavior.

That said, I’m pretty sure every woman can think of examples of female coworkers who we felt were unnecessarily harsh or cruel. I had to work under a woman once who would regularly make other women in the office cry. The woman hated me and made my job a nightmare until the day I left (because of her). But thinking about it later, I realized that she was a vice president in a construction company (I was a copywriter in the company’s marketing department). Construction is, of course, a very male-dominated industry, even at a fancy luxury company like ours. She was the only woman at that level, and I can’t even imagine the literal balls she had to bust to get to where she was. Does that make her behavior okay? Of course not. But it might explain it.

Studies show that women in male-dominated fields tend to take on “male” traits in order to get ahead. Not only do we perceive those women as being “bitchier” than men with the same traits, but now those women may feel a sense of gate-keeping — they had to pay their dues, so why shouldn’t the women trying to come up beneath them?

Another interesting aspect of the University of Arizona study is that the women who reported the most incivility from other women tended to defy gender norms by being more aggressive and dominant. Again, this is all self-reported so take it with a grain of salt, but it does lend credence to the idea that women in the workplace may be acting as gate-keepers to keep other women in line and to possibly limit competition since very few women will actually make it into the upper ranks.

So it’s not exactly a surprising finding, but it is interesting and I’d love to see follow-up to determine the actual cause of this. For the record, I don’t believe the cause is “women are genetically programmed to be catty to each other,” but I do expect that to be the conclusion drawn by Redditors and YouTube commenters.

Once we nail down the actual cause, we can come up with a solution. Bad news for the aforementioned commenters but that will probably involve a complete upheaval of the patriarchy. I know. I’m sorry for your eventual loss and I look forward to hearing your cries of anguish about why it’s always the fault of the patriarchy.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. >I do expect that to be the conclusion drawn by Redditors and YouTube commenters.

    For sure. It’s common to make sense of subtle findings by leaning on your biases and ideology … like speculating that this meanness is a result of the bully adopting male practices or blaming it on the patriarchy.

  2. Excellent! I listened raptly, until the last minute, when I was chuckling too forcefully to catch every word. (So I played it back, of course.) I strongly suspect, with absolutely no evidence, that further studies will show a narrowing of difference between male and female behavior, once confounders are eliminated. We are far more alike than we are different.

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