The “mean girl” trope of women being petty, resentful and two-faced toward one another has followed them beyond high school and into the workplace. Women are often dismissed in professional environments based on this stereotype, but research shows it is not intrinsically true. “It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace,” a book written by Andrea S. Kramer and Alton B. Harris concludes there is no evidence women, by nature, are any more likely to mistreat other female co-workers than men are to mistreat other male co-workers.
Kramer and Harris, attorneys who have both worked in gender equality in employment, published “It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace” earlier this year and recently contributed an article to the Harvard Business Review summarizing their findings.
“We could find no empirical evidence supporting the notion that women are more mean-spirited, antagonistic, or untrustworthy in dealing with other women than men are in dealing with other men,” the co-authors wrote.
Psychological research shared by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) backs up what the authors found: One’s sex has no notable bearing on their personality, cognition or leadership skills.
So, then, why are these “cat fight” caricatures so prevalent?
Kramer’s and Harris’ findings suggest women being in competition with one another is not the result of some innate female trait — it’s because of workplace discrimination.
Because men still occupy most of the leadership positions, women often are placed at odds with one another. Two types of biases lead to this competition, the authors said: affinity bias — which refers to people providing support for those who are like them — and gender bias — which refers to the belief that men are superior to women. A man in leadership is likely to support other men first, leaving fewer spaces for women in higher-up positions.
Kramer and Harris also said the binary masculine culture of many offices leads women to adopt a more masculine management style to distance themselves from female co-workers and appear more like the male in-group. Women’s antagonism toward one another is a result of their environment, not nature.
The authors also pointed out a double standard: Men who are aggressive are seen to be “just doing their jobs” while women are seen as threatening. This perception is a result of gender stereotypes that dictate how men and women should act. People expect women to be nurturing and gentle and men to be assertive and competitive. When women don’t live up to the traits assigned to them, they are vilified.
Some women are unkind and unpleasant, just as some men are. The research the authors conducted showed women and men are largely not biologically predisposed to act with hostility toward those of their own gender.
This evidence shows that the “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” adage simply is not true. What drives women’s competitive behavior with one another in the workplace is not encoded in their DNA; it’s perpetuated in their offices.