It turns out female bosses are perceived as bullies almost as commonly as male bosses are. A full 40 percent of workplace bullies are women, and 70 percent of the time, they choose women as their targets.
This, of course, comes as no surprise to most working stiffs out there. Bullying from bosses knows no gender and is therefore not constrained by it. But when it comes to an examination of why women are viewed as bullies, and how their "bullying" behavior compares to the behavior of male bosses, it gets a little complicated.
The Times first considers this phenomenon from a pure numbers standpoint. One reason women bully may be because it's still excruciatingly difficult for them to break into the upper echelons of the country's top corporations:
After five decades of striving for equality, women make up more than 50 percent of management, professional and related occupations, says Catalyst, the nonprofit research group. And yet, its 2008 census found, only 15.7 percent of Fortune 500 officers and 15.2 percent of directors were women.
The article also suggests, though, that gender stereotypes makes us more likely to see a female boss as "overly aggressive" than we might perceive a male boss engaging in the same kind of behavior.
Research on gender stereotyping from Catalyst suggests that no matter how women choose to lead, they are perceived as “never just right.” What’s more, the group found, women must work twice as hard as men to achieve the same level of recognition and prove they can lead.
Yes, okay, fair enough. But let's look at it another way: While assertive or aggressive female bosses are more likely to be perceived as bullies, then we can assume that the female employees who largely perceive themselves as targets are also victims of stereotypes. If female bosses are perceived as bitchy or pushy if they assert themselves too strongly, then female employees are likely to be perceived as whiny or gossipy for complaining about behavior that feels inappropriate or excessively spiteful or unjust. This is why lots of woman-on-woman bullying, I believe, never gets reported. Or, if it does, it gets reported when the working relationship is so bad that one or both women are probably on their way out.
Then there's the issue of the male heads of organizations, the people who often adjudicate bullying complaints. Many of these men self-identify as either feminist or sympathetic to the feminist movement. Many have done what they could to help their female employees advance. They know how hard it is to be a female boss, and because of this they're likely to support an embattled woman even in the face of multiple accusations of bullying. First, they may carry around that father complex, the one that makes them want to take care of the ladies who need them; second, their politics require them to defend the woman from charges of bullying because it's just so hard to be a female boss. This, we might say, is the soft bigotry of kneejerk feminism.
Fortunately, a change is on the horizon. The emergence of participatory cultures and new valued practices means we can and must develop new models for formal and informal organizations. Increasingly, effective collaboration, collective meaning-making, and the ability to tap into expertise that's distributed across networks of people and tools are far more important than being the single visionary of a company. The old, single-genius model is less and less relevant, and bosses--male or female--who adhere to this model will bully themselves right out of a job as the social revolution takes hold.