W. Brunner, Ed.D.
Melinda L. Costello, Ph.D.
& COSTELLO, SPRING, 2003
bully methods, women supervisors and managers may provide organizations
with the underhanded behaviors that keep competent women from
being noticed and promoted.
women are not good managers; and that is exactly why some companies
keep them. For 30 years, researchers and working women have watched
the progression of females into Americas corporate management
positions, and in their examination of the glass ceiling phenomenon,
Corsun and Costen (2001) report that 40% of US executives, managers,
and administrators are now women. During the early years of the
womens movement, it was hypothesized that as the number
of women entering the working public increased, a feminization
or softening of business organizations would also occur. Publications
such as Helgesens (1990) The Female Advantage, Helgesens
(1995) The Web of Inclusion, and Roseners (1990) Ways
Women Lead led us to believe that kinder, gentler, and nurturing
environments fostered by humane, caring, and intuitive leaders
were developing. Multiculturalism and diversity were the expected
The facts reported
today do not support this earlier view. Most women managers remain
at the lower to mid-level ranks of management, and the workplace
is more violent, competitive, and aggressive than before (Corsun
& Costen, 2001). Popular media such as Time (Labi, 2001), Management
Today (Kennett, 2001), and Psychology Today (Bertucco, 2001) have
all featured stories concerning bully pervasiveness, and as many
as 21% of workers may have been targeted directly by office bullies
(Keashly & Jagatic, 2000; Namie & Namie, 2000). In situations
involving bullying, 81% of the bully behavior is attributed to employees
in a supervisory role (Namie & Namie, 2000).
is that much of the bullying is perpetrated by males, perhaps threatened
by the increased number of women in the management ranks. Sadly,
however, this is not the case. According to Namies U.S. Hostile
Workplace Survey (2000), men and women are equally responsible for
the bullying behavior, and 84% of those employees targeted for the
abuse are female. Surprisingly, women bullies target women employees
more often than they target males (Namie, 2000; Namie & Namie,
In other words,
despite the increasing number of women in Americas workforce,
the corporate environment has become even more hostile, especially
to women. Instead of laying the groundwork for the advancement of
the sisterhood, women have joined men in the harassment of their
own gender. This in no way suggests that women should be denied
admittance to the hallowed halls of corporate work; it does, however,
encourage examination of the phenomena contributing to this unexpected
outcome. What type of system fosters or maintains a bullys
growth? Why do women bullies target women? Are women bullies helping
to perpetuate the existing workplace patriarchy? This paper explores
the dynamics that promote the development of women as bullies and
that encourage women, perhaps unconsciously, to support a system
that keeps them subordinate.
The Bully Model
In her book Why
So Slow?, Valian (1999) contends that the glass ceiling continues
to be held up, in part, by gender schemas: those stereotypes and
biases learned in childhood and that perpetuate into adulthood and
consequently into the workplace. The gender schema for men includes
being capable of independent, autonomous action
instrumental, and task-oriented (Valian, 1999, p. 13). For
women, the schema is different and includes being nurturant,
expressive, communal, and concerned about others (Valian,
1999, p. 13). While everyone, regardless of gender, has and expresses
all of the behavioral traits to a certain degree, men present to
the world more of the masculine traits and women present more of
the feminine (Matusak, 2001; Valian, 1998). The norms of organizations
are defined in masculine terms, and feminine attributes are
valued only in the most marginal sense (Ely & Meyerson,
2000, p. 109). The criteria for success that organizations have
established are based on the stereotypical male characteristics
such as aggressiveness, competitiveness, and autonomy (Bailyn, 1993).
Over time, these leadership traits are taken for granted and become
legitimized, though often invisible, guides for future leader evaluation.
Employees who want to advance up the corporate ladder may feel they
must demonstrate that they carry the male leadership traits and
that they are willing to use them. Instead of embracing the feminine
characteristics that could balance the historical male hierarchical
model, corporations may force women to assume the characteristics
of the dominant culture or may base promotions on the masculine
traits that women possess (Corsun & Costen, 2001; Ely &
Meyerson, 2000; Valian, 1998).
is the amplified acting out of masculine behaviors that range from
blatant demonstrations such as aggressively screaming, yelling,
and threatening dismissals to subtle, underhanded displays. Making
unreasonable job demands, criticizing abilities, and excluding targeted
employees from meetings and necessary information are all found
in the bullys repertoire (Namie & Namie, 2000). Research
on bully behavior and harassment concludes that bullies, like harassers,
are driven by a need for power and control and choose to seek out
a perceived weaker employee to dominate (Namie & Namie, 2000;
Kurth, Spiller, & Travis, 2000).
The corporate world
in which workplace bullies thrive is established according to the
white male experience and represents an extension of the military
and sports models followed by men for generations (Corsun &
Costen, 2001; Harragan, 1977; Hornstein, 1996). Organizational
power hierarchies, competitive work climates, and the bunker mentality
of contemporary corporate life all provide a hospitable environment
for the toxin of disrespect, and even induce it, from bosses who
would otherwise be just (Hornstein, 1996, p.6). According
to Corsun and Costen (2001), competitiveness and the desire to dominate
are understandable consequences of the existing corporate system:
office is the habitat of the powerful. Corporate America is the
kind of place that is natural for white males. The game of business
has a unique military-sports theme, the rules of which were established
years ago by White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male captains
of industry. The military influence is evident in organizational
form and structure, whereas the organizations function (to
win the game or make a profit) is influenced by team sports. (p.
goals parallel those found both in military battles and in sports
arenas; competition is the ultimate game in the bullys mind,
and winning requires a singular focus. In order to win, bullies
believe that their targets must be beaten up and eliminated (Namie
& Namie, 2000). New leaders stepping into this existing military/sports
model must seek and destroy the weakest opponents in order to prove
their worthiness to the powers that be. Many managers who use these
bullying techniques are viewed as effective and are rewarded for
their take-no-prisoners style of tough leadership (Russell, 2001).
Divide and conquer is the mode of operation that allows the bullies
to maintain control over their employees. Any show of collegiality
among ranks is perceived as threatening and quickly dispersed to
forbid the development of strength in opposition (Cox, 1993).
As the numbers
illustrate, women unfortunately are enlisting, or are being drafted,
into the bully battalion at a rate similar to that of their male
counterparts. And, more frequently than men, the opponents women
challenge are other women (Namie & Namie, 2000). This becomes
a more painful and confusing dynamic because the existing gender
schemas indicate that women should be nurturing caregiversespecially
toward the females who are already disadvantaged in the eyes of
corporate observers. This is also a damaging dynamic, because women
who oppress other women help to maintain the existing social order
in which men remain dominant and women are subordinate (Acker, 1990;
Brunner & Costello, 2002).
Role in Perpetuating Tyranny
If there is a perceived
lack of rewards for females throughout the corporate structure,
the competition for power among women may be intensified. Because
feminine traits, skills, qualifications, and accomplishments are
undervalued in a masculine system, certain women may feel a greater
need to demean other women in order to protect the little power
base they have already achieved (Ely & Meyerson, 2000). With
lower rank and limited financial resources, the most vulnerable
member of the corporation is typically the subordinate female, and
she provides the bully with the easiest prey in the competition.
Thus, female bullies help limit the number of women able to challenge
the existing hierarchy.
Through bully methods,
women supervisors and managers may provide organizations with the
underhanded behaviors that keep competent women from being noticed
and promoted. When male executives allow female bullies to demonstrate
these bad behaviors toward other women, the men remove themselves
from the risk of legal and ethical concerns. Thus, female bullies
protect and preserve the male-dominated, existing structure while
men are able to keep their hands clean. The bully behavior is tolerated
because organizations of all kinds keep a comfortable place
for bosses who will do their dirty work (Hornstein, 1996,
p. 103). Workers who publicly question why cant women
get along? may not realize the part that the system plays
in these power dynamics. The woman promoted to the highest levels
in the organization may not need to possess great credentials or
management skills. In fact, her sole strength may be her ability
to puppet upper managements traditional agenda. So in addition
to keeping other, more competent women from advancing, the female
bully also serves as a poor representative and role model for workingwomen
Lewis Maltby, President
of the National Work Rights Institute, states, Bullying is
the sexual harassment of 20 years ago; everybody knows about it,
but nobody wants to admit it (Russell, 2001, p. 4). However,
when a mean woman discriminates, harasses, and mistreats other women
and no man is deemed responsible, it is difficult for the victim
to find protection or legal recourse. In 1980, the Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission (EEOC) developed guidelines for identifying
and dealing with a hostile work environment, but the interpretation
is based on sexual discrimination and harassment, and bullying has
yet to be defined in concrete legal terms. This means that the bullys
victim, unlike the victim of sexual harassment, has no clear-cut
path of protection to follow. And without consistent legal avenues
readily available, the bullys victim cannotexpect an alteration
of organizational behavior and may believe that changing jobs is
her only option.
According to the
US Hostile Workplace Survey (Namie, 2000), 82% of bullied employees
lost their jobs, and 38% left voluntarily. The target that chooses
to stay in the organization may experience a drop in productivity,
effectiveness, and opportunities for advancement. The Canada Safety
Council (Institute of Management and Administration [IOMA], 2001)
estimates that up to 52% of a targets day is devoted to counter-bully
tactics such as building a defensive network, developing counteractive
strategies, or seeking political allies. So, in reality, the bully
has won, and the organizational structure remains intact.
Within this type
of corporate atmosphere, other employees, wondering if they are
the next target, understand that challenging the status quo may
involve significant risk. In fact, employees often rally to support
the bully out of fear of reprisals, thus weakening the prospects
of other women forming support coalitions (Namie, 2000). Research
shows majority group members are threatened by minorities who might
join together for support (Cox, 1993); so the female bully once
again, albeit inadvertently, helps to maintain a structure that
limits the opportunities for all women,including the bully.
Even though she
may feel she has joined the good old boys club,
the club ultimately may not provide the female bully with the same
upper-level positions afforded to its other members. Publicly, male
leaders may compliment female bullies for demonstrating that she
kicks ass with the best of them or shes hard as
nails, (Martin, 1996, p. 191); and in only 7% of the reported
cases was the bully punished, transferred or terminated (Namie,
2000). But as Ely and Meyerson (2000) point out, aggressive, task-oriented
women may also be criticized privately. While this criticism may
remain secret because the organizational hierarchy does not want
to appear discriminatory to women, it nevertheless may limit the
bullys advancement thereby blocking the route for other women.
whether perpetrated by men or women, should be examined further
because of the long-term costs allocated to both employees and the
organizations in which they work. Health problems, legal problems,
and productivity problems tied to bully behavior all represent expenses
that could be avoided (Flynn, 1999; Hornstein, 1996; Namie, 2000).
Turnover expense also should be examined-- and not just as it relates
to replacing targets. Women who do not buy into a masculine style
of leadership may find themselves in a position where they feel
forced either to conform to bully behavior or to take their talents
elsewhere; and starting over slows their progress. To the
extent that employees find it difficult to conform to the image
of the successful employee, or find it difficult to bring all of
their relevant skills and insights to their jobs, important human
resources are lost (Ely & Meyerson, 2000, p. 128).
Like other researchers,
we agree that corporate management needs to acknowledge that bullying
is a major employment issue and requires education, training, and
a zero tolerance policy. More importantly, bullied employees need
to feel there is a place to be heard and that interventions are
possible. Existing laws concerning hostile work environment, defamation
of character, and vicarious liability may need to be altered or
expanded to include bullying behavior as a punishable offense (Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC], 1999; Namie & Namie,
Real change, however,
is possible only when management is willing to examine the model
that rewards just a fraction of the behavioral traits that all employees
possess. Until organizations recognize and reward wholeness
of employees, the feminine and masculine traits we all embody, symptoms
of a fragmented workplace will continue to rear their ugly heads.
Sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, and bullying fall on the
same continuum and serve to maintain the existing corporate structure.
While there is no shortage of change models available, what does
seem to be missing on the part of executive management is willingness
or desire to change. Women, even more than men, should not accept
that the established model is infallible and certainly should not
contribute to its continuing devaluation of feminine characteristics.
When the wrong
woman wins, all employees lose. For thirty years we have wanted
to believe that any woman manager would be a welcome change in any
organization. We also have wanted to believe that as a woman climbed
the corporate ladder she would extend her hand to other women following
the leadership path. Recognizing that women are more likely than
men to bully other women is hard to accept and even harder to discuss
in a public forum. But the statistics should not be ignored. If
half of the bullies in the workplace are women, then women managers
need to assume responsibility for analyzing their roles and contributions
to this organizational dynamic. Even one bully is too many.
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W. Brunner is an Associate Professor of Management at the University
of North Carolina at Asheville.
L. Costello is an Associate Professor of Management at Siena
College, Albany, New York.