Bullying Bosses, Double Standards Plague Working Women

Jan 10, 2018
Originally published on January 11, 2018 11:48 am

Millions of women responded to allegations of sexual harassment against entertainment industry figures, members of Congress and prominent male journalists through the hashtag #MeToo. Workplace experts say the focus on sexual harassment has yet to spotlight another common problem affecting mostly women: bullying bosses. 

Working women also face a troubling double standard in terms of expectations, experts say.

Leandra Parris, an Illinois State University psychology professor, said it's often more difficult for women to find redress for these types of workplace problems.

In a 2011 Harris Interactive Poll, 34 percent of working women reported some form of workplace bullying. More than two-thirds of those incidents involved actions by male supervisors.

Bullying can take the form of verbal abuse, humiliation or sabotaging an employee's job performance. 

“Men already have power. You add on the power of being the supervisor and now you have this huge power differential that is going to put that woman (employee) at risk,” Parris said on GLT’s Sound Ideas

A 2010 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that about 62 percent of bullying incidents involved mostly male supervisors.

Workplace bullying is defined in several ways.

"It has to be intentional. It’s not something that accidently happened, or they didn’t mean it. And it’s repeated, it happens more than once, and it causes distress," Parris said.

“The other part that’s really important is that there is a power differential. The perpetrator has some sort of physical or social power over the victim ... It is not uncommon for that to fall to the bosses because they naturally have that power differential,” she added.

Parris said workplace bullying usually doesn’t involve physical abuse.

“It’s more relational, leaving (people) out, undermining them, lying about them, or verbal aggressioncalling them names, telling them they are not doing a good job, and psychologically trying to undermine their state,” she said.

Women who observe colleagues being bullied also can experience physiological and emotional stress, Parris said.

“They are more likely, if they see bullying and experience it, for it to have a weightier consequence,” she added. 

Women also are often held to different standards than their male colleagues, especially in their interactions with male supervisors, Parris said.

A woman who disagrees with a boss or expresses a forceful opinion is likely to face more consequences than a male counterpart, she said.

“Women are sort of socialized to be the quiet, submissive type. What we see is that men, even if they’re not being socialized to be hostile in terms of sexism, there is this term of ‘benevolent sexism,’ where they’re taught they’re supposed to come in and save the woman. She is the damsel in distress," Parris said.

"There is a fine line between that and she’s supposed to be submissive. She (is supposed to do) what you tell her to do," Parris added.

In many men, that view of women "gets internalized very early on," she said.

It is more difficult for women than men to express forceful opinions without appearing disrespectful to a male supervisor, Parris noted.

“It’s almost like, ‘How dare you question my authority or question anything I can say.' And then there’s this sense of embarrassment that there is this woman who stood up and corrected them," she said. 

It is a "tricky" process for women to speak up to their supervisors in those circumstances where they feel they have been mistreated or have experienced “benevolent sexism," Parris said.

She advises, “Just be honest with them, and do it without emotionality. The minute you start to show any emotion, be it anger or sadness, that moment gets undermined. So a woman has to be even more careful than a man when they approach their bosses to say something. Make sure you practice it and all that emotionality is taken out of the equation.”

Parris said as women gain additional supervisory roles in the workplace, incidents of women bullying other women are increasing. There is an old saying, she said, that “no one hates a successful woman more than another woman.”

However, a more common scenario is for women to fail to speak up in support of their female colleagues, she said.

“We have to hold each other accountable. We go on and on about the men in our lives who treat us poorly, but we really don’t support each other. We don’t jump on that bandwagon,” she added.

Recent high-profile incidents in which the president and male members of Congress have criticized congresswomen for speaking out send a troubling signal to women, Parris said.

“It causes a narrative that makes people think it’s OK that we can now tell women to sit down and shut up. And if (men) will do that in public, what do they think of me face to face? And what about the women who still go out and vote for these people?” Parris asked.

Parris, an expert on trauma and peer victimization, said even she was surprised by the outpouring of women who spoke out about sexual harassment through the #MeToo hashtag. She said she learned things about her friends she never knew.

It remains uncertain whether the uproar will produce lasting change for women, she said.

“I just had a conversation two weeks ago with someone who was debating whether or not to come forward on sexual harassment. We literally did this pro and con list. You know, you are going to be thrown through the mud, there is going to be this full investigation and it may not come out to be anything that makes you feel satisfied,” Parris said.

While many women feel it is now a safer time to come forward, Parris said. "There also other people who think, wow, it’s really still not."

Women, she added, "are still having to do all this mental cognitive work to see if it’s even safe to say something. I don’t see that going away.”

You can also listen to GLT's full interview:

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