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Are Female Bullies Flying Under the Radar?

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Written by: Evelina Silveira

Every woman I have ever spoken to has a story about female bullying. Yet, after 16 years of working 1:1 with workplace bullies and harassers, only about 5% of my clients have been female. I began to wonder why this could be. So, I started digging deeper into my experiences with workplace bullying and harassment and the stories other people have shared with me.

I noticed that males tend to bully in profoundly different ways than women.

In my practice, I have remarked that men’s bullying/harassing behaviour typically involves:

- Raising their voice

- Physical intimidation - slamming doors, punching walls

- Name-calling

- Threats

- Sarcasm

Essentially, their actions are most overt, and there are usually witnesses, although not always. For example, male bullies describe what they do as “venting” to release anger and control the situation.

On the other hand, women appear to be more covert with their bullying tactics, which could be why so few end up in the Human Resources department. Let’s look at a few examples:

- Excluding other females from social/work networks.

- Sharing gossip and rumours.

- Making derogatory remarks about employees behind closed doors.

- Silent treatment.

- Passive-aggressive actions like trying to manage an employee’s/co-workers reputation behind the scenes.

- Giving co-workers/staff extra work because they don’t like them or don’t belong to the clique.

- Withholding information to do their job better.

Just because the actions are covert doesn’t make them less damaging. The victim may not even know what is happening because nothing is said to them directly. They may notice a difference in how people treat them, but they cannot put their finger on it. The uncertainty and confusion can lead victims to second-guess themselves and “crazy-make.” Although emotionally and psychologically impacted by the events, the victim doesn’t have the same proof she may have if the bullying/harassment was out in the open.

I have many theories about why this happens. As females, we are always taught to be “nice,” “sweet,” and passive. From an early age, we socialized to be “likeable, which means conforming to an expectation of how an ideal female should behave. Overt actions like calling people names to their faces or yelling at them would make them instantly unlikeable by most bystanders. However, their covert bullying can give them the best of both worlds –they appear friendly on the surface while plotting abuse behind the scenes. My experiences have shown this to be true. I had two bosses who were friendly towards all staff and appeared to care about them, but behind the scenes, it was different. Once the door was closed, I remember having ageist and bigoted comments made to me. My boss told the Director that I had yelled at her, left in a huff and slammed the door. None of that had happened. That was genuinely frightening when I realized the level of deception.

I am not saying women only bully covertly because that is not the case. However, as leaders and HR professionals, you must also be in tune with the dynamics below the surface. When conducting workplace investigations, you may want to ask questions that include harmful gossip and exclusion from work groups. Is the workload shared, or are the less “likeable” people getting the most work or the worst jobs?

So, what can you do:

- Ensure that your respectful workplace/anti-bullying harassment training includes covert forms and their impacts on victims.

- Provide staff with training to communicate disagreements assertively and respectfully.

- Challenge gossip and the rumour mill – acknowledge that making comments about others who are not around to defend themselves is cowardly, passive-aggressive and disrespectful.

Diversity at Work Communications Training offers 1:1 sensitivity/empathy and anti-bullying and harassment training. To learn more, click here.


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