The Ways and Whys of Female-to-Female Bullying

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By Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

Out of the School Yard and into the Boardroom: The New American Bully, On Film, In Life // A Compleat Guide to Harassment from Unexpected Quarters

All over the world, and most especially, in corporate America, a terrible war is being waged, one that seems so unlikely and preposterous. It is woman against woman, and it is a systematic and conscious marginalizing of smart, talented, women of all looks, race and shape who face a daily work-place assault by the least likely of oppressors- their female supervisor – one who subjects her underlings to such extreme and inappropriate behavior that if a man did it (and with today’s laws, he wouldn’t, not if he were smart anyway), would be facing a sexual harassment suit faster than you could say “Anita Hill.” Bullying is now recognized by the American Medical Association (AMA) as a serious public health problem.

In the Orlando Business Journal, Liz Urbanski Farrell wrote that workplace bullying costs $180M in lost time and productivity. In the US alone, total work related diseases including stress account for a total cost of $26 billion annually.

The victims, or ‘targets’, are women who, just like you, worked so hard to get through school, who, like any normal woman, fight every day with their own feelings of inadequacy and have dealt with sexual harassment and cat-calls and put up and made their peace with men who were promoted over them, even though they were more qualified, and who maybe even sought a job where a woman was their supervisor because they thought it would be somehow better, and find themselves, to their surprise, facing the biggest bully of all. To be clear, just as not all men or even most men harass women at work, the female bully is not every boss or even most female bosses. She is the exception, not the rule, but her domain is growing and sightings become more and more common.

Female-to-female bullying occurs at corporations both large and small and is a global phenomenon. It’s an issue that has become as serious and dangerous, if not more, than sexual harassment, thought to be a between the sexes issue. But bullying is just as bad, if not worse, because it is unexpected by most (most targets are surprised and blindsided to find a woman assaulting them and undermining them and wonder what happened to sisterhood) and far more sinister. It is in issue that has finally begun to receive notice in the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe, where there are groups and legal advice aides, and the like. But as of this writing, bullying is not yet recognized in the United States – or if it is, perhaps it is still hard for many to believe that a woman could cause another woman any serious emotional or physical damage.

The sentiment maybe that, “Sure, women can be bitches, but maybe that’s how she got to the top in the first place.” We excuse female bullies in positions of power because we think it has been harder for them, and maybe it has, but this if anything, one would think would naturally lead to a more sympathetic attitude toward other women. Instead, these are women who made it to the top in various ways (and the evidence is correct, they did so by often stepping on the backs of other women,) and she’ll be damned if they’re going to allow any other woman to take her rightful place alongside her; she fought too hard and too long to allow another woman to steal her perceived spotlight. It’s about envy and insecurity and jealousy and it’s a real and it’s serious and it shatters lives every day.

We think of bullying as the stuff of school-yards and children and pulled pigtails and girls who called you “slut” and demeaned and humiliated you on the school bus. We say of that time, “kids can be cruel”, which is true, but this kind of harmless bullying contributed in some way (though not entirely, I agree) to the makings of Columbine and boys who grew up to be Timothy McVeigh. Not every kid who was bullied blows away his classmates or blows up federal buildings, I agree, but bullying lays the groundwork; it says, “You don’t fit in…” In this new female to female corporate bullying, it is as if the tables have suddenly been turned; those most likely to be the targets of bullies are the women and girls who are the most liked, and the bullies – they are most often the one’s who were bullied as children. Bullying begets bullies.

Somehow, most of us learned to live with some bullying, perhaps because when we were children, the stakes were not as high. We could always fall back on our parents, the principal, the system would protect us, even if we couldn’t. Today’s office bully, is yesterday’s bullied child having her revenge on the girl in high-school she always hated; give her a gun and no consequences and she’d probably open fire on any young thing who reminds her of said girls and feel no remorse.

For adult women, the contemporary consequences of female – female corporate bullying are far more sinister, as talented and good women are driven out of jobs they’ve worked hard for and into the unemployment or disability line. There is little recourse, because in America at least, bullying is not yet a recognized corporate crime, and further , the stakes are much higher. If your supervisor is a bully she will make it impossible for you to do your job; she will ensure that every time you try harder, she pushes you away further; she will refuse to discuss the issue with you should you be bold enough to attempt to work it out; and she is expert at putting on a pretty face in the corporate boardroom, the wood-paneled-mahogany domain of men who are won over by her sweet southern smile and outright denial that she, my gosh, could possibly make your working life impossible.

Targets are left with little or no recourse, and if they are not fired (as is the bully’s desired end-result), you will resign because you can no longer do your job, because your emotional and even physical health will suffer, because there is probably no one at work you can really talk to with impunity (after all, she’s the boss – no-one wants to get involved in this mess) and no recognized human relations policy on bullying as there is on sexual harassment. More, she will put up road-blocks to prevent you from doing your job.

It says something about our society that we still feel that women are incapable of causing the same grievous and emotional damage as men. It’s oddly and uncomfortably insulting in some backward way. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not proud to see this behavior in women, but to not see it, is to grossly underestimate the power and will of women to think that such behavior as abuse and absolute cruelty is beyond their capability.

Truth to tell, a woman bully can be far more viscous than any man. And those women who complain about a senior officer of the company who happens to be a woman, it must be because we are jealous, or think that she’s just a ‘bitch’. Targets are written off as over-sensitive and emotional, and bullies are written off as just incapable. Prejudice against the potential of women to be conniving and evil is among the last acceptable prejudices. Men can’t beat and abuse and harass women any more – that’s just a matter of law. But a woman abusing a woman – what if a man did, a court would call serious and grievous emotional abuse – would be punishable and there would be serious consequences. If it’s two women, it’s a cat-fight, and that is even more degrading.

Just as, historically, some men have tried to control and even denigrate strong women, there are women who wish to do the same. But it’s more than that. It’s emotional terrorism from a person you thought you could trust because women should know better, you say. But that’s naïve; it’s a nice thought, but we all remember junior high and high-school where girls were far more complicated and cruel than the boys. Where there was always some awful gossip or rumor that so and so was a slut or “Julie sucked Paul” written on the bathroom wall by another girl, and even if she did, so what, but we dealt with being marginalized for years, we just didn’t expect it in a professional setting. I like the idea that women should help one another, it’s an idea I believe in and try to implement.

Women who bully are on the opposite side of the fence. They often argue that their bullying is not bullying at all – that it is just ‘toughness’ or ‘assertiveness’ or ‘candor.’ They are so misunderstood, blah blah, and they will have a whole neat system of why they are the way they are, because “it’s a man’s world and it’s the only way” and we’ve also been told that if we are upset by this behavior, then we’re too sensitive or taking ‘it’ too personally, when it is personal. When in the United Kingdom, there are whole organizations and systems in place to protect targets and to legally punish bullies. There are countries that now offer real monetary awards for serious emotional distress and even physical distress. One British group noted that a bully is someone who is often a sociopath and therefore, impossible to reason with, leaving you with few options. And if you’ve ever been really bullied in this way, you just know this is true, and so you leave the job and have no income, while the sociopath remains in the palace. It’s wrong, and something needs to be done.

What is Office Bullying

As expressed above, female to female office bullying is a sinister and traumatic form of abuse, and perhaps because it comes from woman to woman, it is all the more blind-siding and shocking because those of us sto;; naïve enough to believe that our girl friends will always be there to take us to Target when our boyfriends are old and farting, or who believe in some out-moded but still lovely, hippy-dippy notion of sisterhood and that women should and do support other women. Bullying comes as swift and brutal blow, most often dealt by a direct supervisor. The truth is, over 50% of bullying reports filed are about women, and, judging from the reports, “females make much better (or is it worse?) bullies than men.” That women are more likely to know another woman’s vulnerabilities than a man, and are smart enough to know that what they do will not fall under any sexual harassment provision. Since there is no law against it, as such, the bully knows you have no recourse, that if you report it to personnel, they will likely take the bully’s side, and most of all, because the bully usually picks one target at a time, other people at the corporation will often see a completely different side of this person and are unable to connect your experience and knowledge of her with their own. This is because they are not her target and receive very different treatment. By definition, the bully is predatory and targets and isolates one person at a time.

What Then

A real bully can cause an incredible amount of damage to both the target and even to the company, and taking it forward, the economy. What bullies do, is keep pushing until you quit your job even though you love it or you verbally and emotionally explode and tell her what she probably needs to hear but you isn’t appropriate to the workplace so you’re fired . Either way, you run off into the woods like Snow White, fleeing the wicked stepmother.

One of the problems found repeatedly in bullies is that they are often people who were never held accountable as children; that they got away with stuff that the rest of us did not. They feel deeply inadequate, though when pressed, couldn’t tell you why because denial is another huge factor, and they will go to any lengths to conceal their ignorance or inadequacy. She is driven by jealousy and fear of being publicly outed. Her biggest fear is that you are better than she is, that you know more, or are prettier, or worse, that you are good.

Where there is Goodness, and I mean this in the Platonic sense and in the everyday sense as in “good person”, you will find a bully. In fairy tales, we have Snow White, whose bully was her stepmother, and who re-assigns her from her rightful role as royal daughter to a role that is essentially domestic slave and takes away her finery and replaces them with cotton rags and still, Snow White manages to look better than the stepmother. The stepmother in all her Disneyfied make-up, addicted to her mirror and seeking validation. But somehow, demeaning, humiliating, subordinating and marginalizing Snow White isn’t enough.

For a real woman or girl just entering the work-force, you may find that the face that you always thought of as reasonably pretty (or as I say, Good enough lookin’), that you have done your research and know your job well, and that you get along with people and they seem to like you and say as much, all of these are good things. It doesn’t occur, until it happens to you, that these hard-won skills and decent grooming will be a problem. In fact, it is more often than not, the most humble girl that the bully targets.

The woman the bully-bitch can’t stand is the girl who doesn’t even know how pretty she is and has on no make-up, save for Chapstick and a hasty coat of mascara, who is friendly without being flirtatious and men still love her anyway, and is generally popular, she is who does her job well and, oh no, perhaps takes initiative or has some clever ideas of her own. It’s interesting that the type that bullies prefer is a person with a strong moral code and sense of integrity — this is the person the bully will point her laser-beam at and seek to destroy. And this is because the bully doubts her own integrity and goodness and like everyone else who sees it in you, she does too, and she hates you for it.

How Do You Know For Sure:
Clues Bullying

So what differentiates a bully from one who is simply a tough manager? One British group found that a bully is usually inadequate at her job; a bully often plagiarizes her employees’ ideas; a bully will prevent you from fulfilling your duties, making it virtually impossible to do your job at all, let alone excel or move up. It is also well-documented that bullying is a serial and compulsive behavior – one that is purely emotional and further, that the bully has little or no control over this behavior. Bullies are sometimes Bordernline personalities or outright sociopaths. This is not to abdicate responsibility – but instead to show that when dealing with a bully, though it may not feel like it, you are most often dealing with a person who is terrified of her own inadequacy and in competency and most importantly, someone with whom you will not be able to rationally resolve the issue.

There are signs that you are being bullied. Take the following; The bully will often fabricate reports of your underperformance or make statements to others in the organization insinuating that you are ineffective at your job, or that the job is beyond your scope. She may even imply that you are emotionally or physically fragile and that this has affected your job performance. Understand, this does not mean it is true; in general, this is pure fabrication. You may be working harder than ever, but understand, that fact alone may trigger the bully. The better you are at your job, the smarter you are, the more you stand out, the more you are a target.

The bully will restructure the group you are in and suddenly you’re lower on the org. chart (this is a classic bullying tactic and one they can easily defend by saying they had to re-organize to improve the company or group); suddenly, your job will lack definition, and it’s impossible to do well at anything that defies definition.

Your bully will be irritated and annoyed when you ask reasonable questions that you need the answers to do your job because she doesn’t want you to do your job and moreover, likely doesn’t know the answers, and further, she wants you to go away. And because she has power, she has surrounded herself with groupies who kiss up to her and listen to her every word with rapt adoration and attention, even if she’s wrong and not making any sense.

Make no mistake; a good bully (clearly an oxymoron), one who knows her trade, is driven by such envy and deep-rooted inadequacy that she will go to any unethical length to protect what she perceives you threaten. Your threat is that you might know when she is wrong because you’ve studied up. You threaten because the best thing about you is that you don’t pretend to know everything (as she does), and as such, you are always learning because the best way to learn is to admit that you don’t know.

You’ll think you’re going crazy. You’ll think you are weak, and you’ll second-guess everything you thought you knew and you’ll fear that you are a stereotype of a ‘victim.’ You’ll say, Why me? As if there is any answer to this other than, Because you are you, and I can tell you with certainty that what is happening to you has nothing to do with inadequacy or badness in any form, and has everything to do with the fact that you are good and maybe not a bitch, but sadly, maybe Stephen King’s creation, Dolores Clairborne was right when she said, “Sometimes bein’ a bitch is the only thing a woman’s got to hold onto.” But it’s more likely that you will be shocked and saddened and confused and for a while anyway, unable to react. The effects of bullying have been likened to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

To further complicate, co-bullies may even begin filing complaints or making noises about your performance, because the bully has mentioned her issues with you to them and they are protecting their careers and sucking up to the proverbial ass. And even if the complaints have no merit, no matter. You may even find yourself apologizing, because you’ve wanted to do so well and thought you were and because you’re good, you naturally assume that if someone is telling you that your work isn’t up to snuff, it must be true, and you’re a good girl and you aim to please, and she will encourage you in this guilt. You’ll say sorry all the time. You’ll say sorry for saying sorry, because she’ll say something stupid and bitchy like, Don’t say you’re sorry for being sorry, just be sorry you can’t get it right.

What is bullying?

A good, basic checklist to work from is the following. While there are some bosses who do some or a few of these things, a bully usually does everything on the checklist and has a Jekyll and Hyde personality. A bad manager may treat everyone this way, but a bully will single out one person and treat her in this way.

Being singled out in a group and mocked and/or humiliated. Things will be said as a “joke” that are clearly not funny. Other workers may even laugh, usually because they are uncomfortable. Most will eventually see that you are being treated differently or singled out, but don’t know what to do about it.

Attempts to undermine your position and value; may give you a lesser job title or fewer responsibilities. If you were on a high-profile project, you may be taken off of it. The good projects will go to other workers who may be less qualified than you for the task.

Undermines your contribution to the company and finds fault with your work, when there is none. Or, takes minor mistakes and makes them into Examples and uses as such to teach the group What Not To Do. This is usually done in meetings or on conference calls.

Makes your job description so vague and unclear that it is impossible for you to do a job that is undefined. Likewise, making it unclear as to who you report to, leaving you in a void. [A classical instance of harassment by “vagueness” appears in the memorable 1956 film, “Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” wherein Gregory Peck’s character, WW2 veteran Tom Rath, tries bravely to please his immediate superior at UBC, a CBS-type of corporation, but the man persists in making his life impossible by not even providing clear details as to what he’s supposed to be doing.]

Creating goals and deadlines that a.) are unrealistic and b.), are imposed only on you, not other members of the team.

Plagiarizing your work and taking credit for your ideas.

Refusing communication; ignoring instant messages, e-mails, phone calls, and other attempts on your part to clarify a situation or need for direction – refusing to give adequate direction.

Making degrading comments about your work or even your other interests. These comments escalate and often become personal, especially if you remain unreactive, the bully will up the ante and the comments will become more and more inappropriate, possibly insuating things of a sexual nature.

Making fun of your heritage or background, the way you look, where you went to school, your interests, etc.

Being excluded from the group.

Being demoted, placed lower on the organizational chart and without explanation.

Given work of a trivial nature, or having work that is not trivial, trivialized and undervalued. Group contribution undervalued.

Fabricated disciplines for mistakes that you didn’t make, but are ascribed to you nonetheless; blaming you for things that are not your responsibility.

Behavior and attitude that is mocking, minimizing and outright degrading. Minimizes your contribution, your achievements, and awards others with very public awards for doing half the work that you have done (a slap in the face).

Making it so that you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t; if you ask questions, you are reprimanded or taunted; if you do not ask questions, you are treated like you’re stupid.

Turning other employees against you who previously stood by you; this may also occur if you turn to them for support, and since they don’t see this side of her, you come off as paranoid or overly sensitive and emotional. If anyone tries to support you, she will indicate that there simply “is no problem” and that it’s “all in your head.”

Why You
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If often begins with false charges – outrageous fabrications about the quality (or lack thereof) of your work, which is either an outright fabrication or hinged on some really trivial thing which that if anyone else did it, would go unmentioned. But in your case, this becomes a world crisis because she’s been gunning for you from the minute she laid her jealous, piggy eyes on you or your resume or both, especially if both are pretty good. And if you’re anything like me, this in and of itself is bewildering, because you never thought you were so great -and like everyone, have your insecurities.

Clearly, what she perceives when she looks at you and what you perceive when you look at you, are not the same thing, and for just this once, it would actually be better if the bully saw you the way you do with your distorted body image and the three-thousand dollar therapy bill that you racked up trying to work out your body-image issues and that you carry around in your jean’s pocket on your gigantic butt. That all of the things that you are so unsure of, and the experience you wish you had, she will overplay on your resume. To the bully, you are larger than life.

This is probably the only time in your life when you will really wish that someone saw you as less than you are. The problem, among many others, with the bully’s perception, is that it takes each of your good qualities and then magnifies them with an electron microscope intensity; if the two you could actually get together – you with your dysmorphia and her with her envy of all that is you – maybe you could come up with a realistic portrait of who you really are.

You threaten because you are pretty and you don’t know it, or you don’t care, or don’t think about it. You threaten because you are driven and smart but not cut-throat. You threaten because you you’re going places but in an honorable way, by working hard and not using politics. And more often than not, targets of bullies are the most well-liked people in the workplace – liked by men and women alike. What the bully fails to see is that what makes you attractive, and this she will never understand, is what is inside of you. Your bully may look like a supermodel and still envy your looks because the lens she is looking through is warped.

In some ways, the bully is right to envy you. There is a certain beauty born of trust, lightness and a kind heart – the things that made everyone like you in the first place and made her hate you – those are the things that make you beautiful. Think of Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice, her be incandescence; think of the absolutely radiant Juliette Binoche in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I hear you say, But this is not me, and maybe so, but I can tell you that it is this quality that you must possess to some degree, because it is chum for bullies. A bully feels so heavy, so burdened with need and insecurity and seething envy, that your lightness is unbearable to her. As British expert and anti-bully advocate Tim Field notes, “Only the best are bullied.”

How They Play the System

Bullies know that the system they set up is an impossible no-win. It is designed to make you squirm and flounder like a fish on a hook. She will find your vulnerability and exploit it, so much the better if in front of a whole group of people – especially if they are the same people who had respected and like you so much, and now, with the new boss and what is gong in, figure “no one is this crazy so you must have done something.” She will see you literally gasp for air – as some victims have sued and won for being bullied to the point where they had full-blown, potentially lethal ashma attacks. She wants you to suffer.

You will be on conference call and mocked and ridiculed or snapped at, though mocking is more gratifying because it degrades you, and others will laugh nervously while you struggle with the phone not knowing what to do next. What to say. So you just listen, like the school-girl you used to be, and you take it like a Good Girl should and are reduced to a child and the are mute. The bully might say something like “Are you asleep? Are you drunk? Haalloooo!!” This is a no-win situation; if you speak, whatever you say is wrong, and if you do not, you will be mocked and humiliated as above.

As for Snow White, bullied by the stepmother, she accepts her new role quite willingly (much the way victims of bullies find themselves feeling helpless and child-like). Snow White makes no complaint to speak of. She’s out there singingly going along with the whole thing because this is just her life and she accepts that. Much the same way that you let the office bully push you around because you figure you can’t do anything about it and more, this kind of irrational hatred is beyond your comprehension and you have the rent to pay, and the car, and everything else.) Moreover, bullying can be so traumatic that many targets find themselves at a complete loss as to what to say or do: they often feel trapped, depressed, and in extreme cases, some have even taken to self-harming behavior such as over-medicating themselves or suicide.

She doesn’t understand why the stepmother hates her so much, and no doubt, like anyone who has been bullied like this, probably blames herself and most sadly, works even harder t win over the bully over; seeking approval.

The stepmother, though she’s clearly demeaned and demoted and subordinated and tried as hard as she can to make Snow White not count, hasn’t succeeded, and this drives a bully mad. At last, she orders her taken to the edge of the woods and killed, but the man can’t do it and at the last minute, let’s her go and off she runs into the woods, scared as anyone would be, with the dark night and the wild animals and the strange noises, but somehow, she’s okay with all of this. She’s just grateful to be alive.

Eventually, she hooks up with some messy little dwarves and befriends all the soft, furry animals, and moves into the dwarves cottage and even sings as she cleans up everyone else’s mess, and soon the dreadful cottage is transformed and is pretty and light, just like she is, and she’s living this enchanted life. Even though she’s not on palace grounds and is living in the woods with dwarves (dwarves!), she’s still manages to outshine the queen.

What is most unbearable to the stepmother is that Snow White is just so loved wherever she goes and that she has this light quality that gives her a certain power, something the stepmother desperately wishes she had – sound familiar? In my view, if anyone should be upset here, it’s Snow White, not the queen. It is she who’s been put through the wringer, and if that were me, I don’t know that I’d be as gracious and happy about almost having my throat slit, spending the night on prickly pine needles and having to clean up after sloppy and weird dwarves all day – but hey – she’s just a better person. And that is exactly what makes her a target.

The office bully, much like the stepmother, will not rest easy until you are well out of her woods – that is, out of the company. Unless, by some stroke of justice, she is put in another department or leaves, unfortunately, it will be you who will eventually leave. The fact is that 82% of bullied individuals will lose their jobs (44% involuntary departure, 38% voluntary).

Appeals to personnel are often over-looked and the target regarded as a traitor and a crank, and odds are, because your bully is highly placed, she is often friends with those HR people and will hear of your complaint. Sadly, personnel more often than not, come down squarely on the side of the bully. Some of this is ignorance that this is a real phenomenon and actual offense, but for the most part, it’s politics as usual. In 51% of cases Human Resources did nothing to help the victim despite requests; in 32% of cases HR supported the bully by reacting negatively to the victim.

Other Bullies

This drama played out in real-life when the world first became aware of Diana Spencer. Or rather, when the Queen turned to the Daily Mirror and saw someone fairer than she. Fifteen years prior reveal a queen of great beauty; of thick, raven-colored hair and alabaster skin and regal features. She’s had her image stamped on everything from tea-towels to tea-pots and coasters, not to mention the fact that she is actually on the currency of a great nation; she is the currency, the commodity.

Of course, Charles had had girlfriends before, but they were all rather soppy girls of the horsey set, or Sloane Rangers with their sleek bobs and Hermes scarves or the latest It Girl from whatever publicity or advertising agency was hot at the time, and none of them were worth getting upset about because, although they may have been pretty, even gorgeous, they lacked any real depth and so posed no real threat.

Then the Daily Mirror and there she is: Diana. This doe-eyed and young girl (and I do mean girl – she was only what, eighteen?), with her golden hair, halo-like and shining, the bright British sun streaming through her ordinary civilian rags – her pretty cotton print skirt from Marks and Sparks or some such, and she’s holding a child in her arms because it’s just what she does – Diana Spencer takes care of other people’s children. People who are too tired, or too busy, or too bored, or who just plain don’t care, she takes them all on even though, truth to tell, she certainly came of some money (we’ve all seen pictures of the house (read: Estate) at where she grew up) was born of some blue blood, but she’s chosen to take care of other people’s children. She’s just Good.

The fact that in the Daily Mirror photograph you can see every sensuous and balanced curve of her body (because she’s wearing thin cotton and she is backlit by the sun, but doesn’t know it and no doubt, was mortified when she saw it because she was still a shy girl. But most remarkably and, to the queen, most maddeningly, there is nothing contrived here; the whole scene is real. It’s not some planned royal shoot. Diana is entirely unconscious of her magnificent appeal and this makes her all the more appealing.

And god help her, because in just a few years after the shot is taken, things will never be the same, but in this moment, she believes in the fairy tale and has her carriage and her prince and her gown and her crown and life seemed like it would all be perfect.

Like most victims of bullies, I doubt Diana thought for minute that being good would be her downfall or a thing that someone would hate you for. She probably naively thought it would make the queen like her, and we know that was important to her – at least before she got shot down so many times that she finally gave up and got sick of trying to get the Queen and the Queen Mum, who was even harder on her, to like her when a member of their own family was out there committing adultery, which as titular head of Anglican Church seems more than a little bit off, but no matter. Diana had faith – even after, like our Snow White, she is booted out of the royal family and stripped of her title and is on her hands and knees metaphorically Cloroxing the palace steps.

Like Snow White, like most targets of bullies, she eventually winds up well out of the way, driven off the palace grounds and stripped of her title and her power (though we all know Diana marvelously maintained her power just by being herself, which must have driven the Queen mad with envy, and was apparent when Lady Di died and the queen tersely gave her speech which wasn’t even close to believable). Snow White, Lady Diana, women the world over are subject to this kind of abuse and there are no laws in place to protect them. No recourse.

This is not the bullying of childhood, which we now know, even that wasn’t harmless. There are serious after-effects. A worker with lupus or an autoimmune disease that can be triggered by stress may have what is known as a “flare”; her body will attack itself and she will be more susceptible to infection and serious illness. An epileptic may begin having seizures, again brought on by stress. Many experience insomnia, loss of appetite, constant worry, feelings of worthlessness and helplessness, disbelief, shock and trauma, forgetfulness, mental breakdown, nervous exhaustion even suicidal ideation or suicide attempts, are all well-documented symptoms of bullying. In some cases, targets will also literally break out in skin rashes and viruses or infection such as hives, shingles, psoriasis, exzema; generally, these skin conditions were under control and suddenly reappear as a direct stress reaction. There is also a noted increased reliance on drugs to bring relief – sleeping pills, anti-depressants, benzodiazepines and other tranquilizers. And more, migraines, trembling, excessive sweating, heart palpitations (heart conditions, such as murmurs and prolapse may be aggravated), shy bladder syndrome (an inability to urinate even when the urge is strong). Then there are the emotional symptoms, which to name only a few, are loss of self-worth, numbness, shattered self-confidence, feelings of isolation, insecurity, and desperation. 41% of targets were diagnosed with clinical depression and over 80% reported other ill-effects such as severe anxiety, inability to concentrate, and insomnia.

Though target’s reactions may vary in severity, they are often in direct proportion to the level of bullying; there have been reported cases of suicide attempts and successful suicides. There is a 10% rate of considered suicide / suicidal ideation and a 1% of women will actually attempt suicide. Bullying expert and activist Tony Fields estimates the number of suicidal thoughts and actual suicides to be much higher due to underreporting. That leaves us with out of one hundred women who feel suicidal because of workplace bullying by another female. Out of these, twelve targets, sadly, succeeded in committing suicide.

Further compounding the problem, the target may begin to fear going to the office and may miss work due to illness (physical) or stress (emotional), thereby giving the bully something tangible to hang her complaint on. Jobs are lost, as is any hope of getting a reference, and with the job, and, unless you have a partner to catch you, there goes your livelihood and, in this economy, it can take months to a year to find another job, and longer if you are perceived as a ‘trouble-maker.’ Bullies will also bad-mouth you, which may prevent you from getting another job in the same industry. So what is your recourse?

Recourse and Recovery

First, read up and learn about bullying. Be clear about what has happened to you and do not fall into a victim mentality where you do not stand up for your rights. While it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to do anything within the company you are at, there is plenty you can do once you leave. Granted, it’s not fair, but just remember, you can make bullies pay – and if not, in the very least, you can bring their actions to the attention of the chief partners of the company who will not want to risk being named in a serious lawsuit.

Seek out the many Internet sites devoted to helping you understand what is happening to you and what you can do about it. Learn your rights. There are many Internet organizations in America and Europe set up to help guide you through this time and give you the right advice. Read up on some case histories – generally, you’ll want to study some sexual harassment cases, since that is against the law, and try to pursue your case through this channel. Other channels you may pursue include Defamation, Harassment, and even Assault. If phrases like “Infliction of intentional emotional distress” sound familiar, you likely have a case. Mental Stress, as defined by law, must be objectively proven to arise from stressful work conditions rather than from conditions the petitioner found stressful. The conditions must be “objective” and realistic” so as to cause sufficient injury to result in a mental disorder.

In Goyden, the lower court awarded total disability benefits to the petitioner, a supervisor of records in the office of the Clerk of the Superior Court, because of a chronic and severe depression attributable to his work. The dissenting judges concluded that a disability can be compensable in cases in which the work conditions were not the sole factor in causing the injury or illness as long as they are a contributing factor. “That Goyden’s particular characteristics as a person may have made him more sensitive or susceptible to the influences of stress or even predisposed to develop a psychological illness does not impugn the court’s conclusion that his disability arose out of and in the course of employment.”

Other Important Things to Do – How to Break the Cycle

While it may feel that your world is falling apart, it is probably incredibly difficult to even process what is happening to you or why, let alone begin to build a case or stand up for yourself. However, it is vitally important that you document everything. Eventually, you will want to fight back, and the only way to do that effectively and to win is to prepare, just as you would in any other case of abuse. Workplace bullying has been likened to rape (called by some “emotional rape”). The way you feel is more than understandable, but begin to empower yourself. Here are a few guidelines:

• Keep a highly-organized journal of all interaction with the bully, listing dates, times, context, and witnesses. Include any demeaning comments or attitudes and how it made you feel both physically and emotionally.

• PRINT HARD COPIES of all e-mails to and from the bully and other pertinent staff re; clarification; this could be about ‘problems’ with your work, or those emails of a job well done. Do NOT rely on soft/computer copies. Bring home all of the hard copies and keep duplicates in a safe place.

• Keep a pen and paper handy or your computer on so that you can type direct quotes that may be demeaning. Note the date, time, witnesses, etc. and what ‘provoked’ her response. To be clear; it’s not that you provoked the abuse, but there will be something you did or did not do that elicits the bully response. This does not mean that you did anything wrong.

• If others in your company have noticed that you are being treated differently, don’t engage too much with them; you don’t want to politic, but mention that you feel the same way and are upset by this. Note the individual’s name and the date and time of the conversation.

• Save any e-mails to and from your boss (bully) or direct supervisor in which you have tried to clarify any issues; save ‘to’ and ‘from’ issues; likewise, if there is no response, keep your ‘sent’ e-mail and mark it ‘no response’ with the amount of time lapsed.

• Look up your company’s sexual harassment policy.

• Attempt to form a relationship with the bully, but understand that it is unlikely this will happen.

• You may go through personnel, but again, it is unlikely that this will get you anywhere. You just want to follow the proper channels.

• Do not gossip about this, however, if you are emotionally distraught over a recent (‘just now’) event, don’t be afraid to confide only how you feel in a co-worker you trust; but never say anything bad about the other person. Express only the negative impact this has on you.

• Seek medical advice if you are suffering health consequences; be sure to tell your doctor of your work stresses and specify names and examples. Likewise, if you seek a therapist, be sure to be clear about what brought you there. This information will be useful when it comes to assessing emotional and physical harm.

• Keep notes pertaining to defamation of character, libel, assault (at least one case in Great Britain was won when there was almost no physical injury but a great deal of emotional injury).

• Seek a good lawyer once you have gathered as much information as possible to create a strong case.

SADI RANSON-POLIZZOTTI  is Cyrano’s Senior Editor for Poetry, Photography & Life Chronicles.  She’s also co-editor with Patrice Greanville of the Tantmieux Cyrano Project, a new cyberalliance designed to gradually integrate and strengthen Cyrano’s Journal and tantmieux in most cultural, artistic and political areas.  She’s currently at work on a biography of Lewis Carroll. 

Contact Bullybusters by clicking here.

For more advice, click here.

Other Resources

The American Civil Liberties Union

Harvard Civil Rights Web Site

Workplace bullying and retaliation in Zimmerman, et al. v. Direct Federal Credit Union, et al.

Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace, Davenport, Schwartz, and Elliott, Civil Society Publishing, July 1999, ISBN 0-9671803-0-9. Cost $14.95 ($21.95 in Canada); can be ordered directly from BookMasters Inc, PO Box 388, Ashland, OH 44805, USA, Tel (800) 247-6553, e-mail or through your local bookstore.

Judith Wyatt (licensed marriage family and child counselor) and Chauncey Hare (licensed family therapist) are authors of Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive It (Schenkman Books, 1997).

Chauncey Hare’s web site or you can email him at or write to him at: Work and Family Resources Center, Fair Oaks Street, San Francisco, CA 94110-3619, USA.

New! Read Marge Mueller’s interview with Chauncey Hare: The Secret Tragedy of Working: Work Abuse – PTSD

UK-based anti-bullying website

US-based anti-bullying website

9 comments on “The Ways and Whys of Female-to-Female Bullying
  1. hi Tami – a kindred spirit indeed! Good for you, and congratulations on your book! Kudos to you for writing this book and outing these work-place bullies out of the board (bored?)-room and into the pubilc. We seek the same truth… Do, if you like, send a copy of your book to me (contact me via Cyrano email) and i’d be glad to review it and see that it gets the attention it surely deserves…

    semper fi!

    salve sis,

    sadi r-p

  2. Depressing that so much toxicity is injected by those who should naturally be your friends and allies. But, heck, it even happens among siblings. The human race is certainly screwed, fucked, kaput, badly wired…you supply the proper adjective.

    Reading this piece made me think that perhaps, as is the case with an overly militaristic Hillary Clinton, who’s trying to prove her fides in a man-environment, women who bully fellow women have imbibed too much of that corporate value brew, a poisonous brew if you ever saw one! I spent 30 years in the corporate jungle, and endless, nonstop competition and jockeying for poower was the rule—as it is in literally all corporate milieux. To mediocre souls (the norm) then that is the road to follow to American success…good read.

  3. I wonder if a real regime of workplace democracy would deal with these vices & issues better than the highly rigidified hierarchies we find in corporations? I think the problem is systemic.

  4. A brilliant component of this is your changing the word “victim” to “target”.
    As we know, language defines and forms thought and action, sometimes in dreadfully limiting ways.
    Who wants to define themselves as a victim? It pins you right down under the boot (stilettos, in this case) of the tormenter.

  5. hi Paul – when you say “mediocre” you hit the nail on the head… it is, as you put it, a poisonous brew and that’s the American workplace today and it sucks. The trend has changed from women being subordinated, as i think they were – or i know- to a sort of “guilt’ that must be felt by male co-workers and higher ups now who let them get away with this stuff because of a feeling of guilt from years prior. That’s just my take….. alas, guilt works wonders on some people. if you ask me, however, i feel no guilt ever.

    Guilt is a useless emotion.

    thanks for reading…


  6. hi marcia; i think the problem is systemic… corporate hierarchies are never going to deal with this problem for a number of reasons – primarily because they want it to go away and they figure women just “aren’t capable” of this… whch really makes me wonder. That in itself is an insult. Listen, i could be a right bitch if i so chose, but the point is that it is an act of WILL to be not that way and that is the more mature and measured attitude in life… it’s sad when others don’t see it that way or when they think women are incapable of being this cruel. One would like to think women are more empathic in some ways – to other women, that is – but people are people anyway you cut it… In the UK there is now a precedent where female to female bullying can be taken up in the court as “sexual harassment” – which is appropriate because if you have experienced it, that is exactly what it is… pathetic. People in the US should bring suit as well and move outside of the corporate environments and take this to the courts where more could be done….

    thanks…. s.

  7. dear Szuz – thanks for the comment on my use of language and not the word “victim” – i don’t believe you are a victim unless you allow it – you can be “the target” of anything pretty much, and that is not blaming the target – but you can be “the target of violent crime” for example…. it’s the same thing.

    One has to ask the question because it hovers here, why is it that pretty much all bullies are ugly, unattractive people, yet they are socially accepted in corporations? Do we feel guilt over their misfortune – as if “we should” because nature dealt them a bad hand….? Or is it that it is their personality that makes them ugly…? Certainly the latter is part of the deal…..

    don’t let yourself fall under anyone’s stiletto – fuck that. Pardon language, but enough…. i, for one, have had it.

  8. In the sociology of groups—anything larger than a big family, by the simple rules of vulgar sociology—there’s always friction, and bullying, am afraid is liable to exist under most human forms of group organization: anarchist, Marxian, certainly capitalist. I guess the only thing we can hope to achieve is to MINIMIZE the toxicity of such behaviour, as another writer indicated, by establishing firm rules of conduct, and self-defense, accepted by everyone. It involves struggle, of course, the inevitable component of all life and history. The author did a solid analysis of the problem, and it can;t be swept under the rug even if its manifestations are probably never going to crop up in some fashion.

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