The Myth of the Mean Girl
There is a myth circulating the workplace and media outlets that women are not supporting each other in the workplace. This Myth suggests that women who work together often bully, harass or sabotage each other more commonly than their male counterparts. These women are often labeled as either “Mean Girls” or “Queen Bees”. In todays work environment, as women, we need to consider each other as allies and this myth is directly conflicting that.
What’s With the Myth?
So, why have we come to this idea that there are mean girls and queen bees? First, I think there’s just something about the language around it. We like to title things, and then it takes on a life of its own, because we don’t have this kind of language about how men treat each other at work. They’re just jerks… or a stronger word.
Then why does this myth persist about women in the workplace? I recently posted an article from the Harvard Business review that refers to their research done on the subject that showed no empirical evidence for this myth. The fact that we’re even having to research this to disprove it should tell us something. This is the second, and probably even third time, I have heard that at least two bodies of research have shown there is literally no basis for this.
A Quick Thought Experiment
Women support each other in equal measures to men supporting each other at work. I like to have people go through an exercise and think about: if you identify as a woman, of your last 100 interactions with women; how many times were those supportive? How many times were they even just neutral? Then, how many times did you have a negative experience? It’s probably one or two out of a hundred.
Then go through that same exercise and think about your last 100 interactions with people who identify as men. You’re likely going to find about the same ratio.
Gender Based Behavior in the Workplace
It’s both troubling and concerning, particularly for young women coming out into the workforce for the first time, for them to think that half of their coworkers are out to get them. What we really need to tackle here is this idea that yes, there are jerks in the workplace. And they are in equal measure people who identify as men and people who identify as women. That is about emotional intelligence, not gender.
We need to tackle this idea, and really think about gender expectations, because that’s at the heart of what this all comes down to. What are my expectations about how feedback should be delivered? About how much somebody should know and care about my family, my personal life, how nurturing people should be? We have very gendered expectations about behavior at work, and particularly behavior in leadership.
If I am very direct and am giving you direct feedback, if those behaviors are displayed by a man, that’s leadership. That’s the gender norm for leadership for people that identify as male. Those same behaviors as a woman are seen as bitchy, or “she’s not supporting me”.
One of the things that I would have us do is actually flip the script. If you are having an experience, and you identify as a woman, with another woman, and you’re thinking “She’s a mean girl,” or “She’s a queen bee,” I want you to think to yourself: “Would I be saying those same things if this were a man?”. The chances are very likely that the answer is no.
How Women can Support Each Other in the Workplace
Instead, I would like us to think about relationships with other women in the workplace as triple A; that is how to be an ally, how to amplify, and how to advocate for other women at work. We do have unconscious bias working against us, so how can we support one another to be successful in very tangible ways that help to break down those unconscious biases? And particularly, what can I as a white woman do to support women of color, women with disabilities, LGBTQ? Really think about intersectionality, and how we can, each and every one of us, use our privilege to support other women at work.
Triple A: Allyship, Amplification and Advocacy
What does allyship look like? It’s if you see another woman being interrupted in a meeting, saying, you know, “Hold on. Hold on, Steve, I don’t think that Shakira was quite done with what she was saying”. If an idea is stolen, doing the same thing looks like “Hey, Lisa, I don’t know if you did it, if you recognize this, but Tiffany just brought that idea up a couple of minutes ago. Tiffany, would you continue?”
Amplification is making sure that if there’s an idea or if there was progress made, that you’re amplifying somebody’s voice, saying, “Gosh, you know, when so and so said this, it was really great”.
Advocacy is throwing people’s name in the hat, really saying, “Gosh, I think they’re ready for this project,” or, “I think that we should send them to that conference” and thinking about this as how we can be triple A in our relationships with people who are from underrepresented groups.
Break the Myth
Let’s put a stake in the heart of mean girl. I would say the other thing to do is, if you hear this myth being replicated, if you hear, “Oh, women don’t support women,” take a stand. I’ve done this at a couple of different women’s conferences where someone will bring this up and it’s important to remind them that by acting in this conference we are in fact supporting each other.
Challenge people to go through that exercise of the last 100 interactions that they’ve had with men and with women, and how they will see that there are an equal number of jerks by gender, and not continue to feed this beast. So challenge it, be triple A, and flip the script. I hope that each one of us can do our part to put a stake in the myth of the heart of mean girls at work.