by Brenda Jin
A recent article from the New York Times reported incidents of female bullying at work. Mickey Meece has pinpointed one of the biggest problems that modern women face (in case we’ve forgotten over the past century): men are not the only ones to blame for “holding women back”; women are capable of behaving in ways that undermine other women as well.
The article raises two big questions: 1) Are women really bullying women, or is there a double standard for professional behavior? 2) Why do women feel pressure to compete with other women in the work force?
The first question is one that concerns all women in leadership positions, and one that was recently brought to attention by Hilary Clinton’s political campaign for presidency. It seems that if a female leader is too nice, she’s prescribing to traditional gender roles and is therefore a pushover. One tiny step in the other direction, however, and both women and men will denounce her as a world class bitch. Women in high-powered positions have to walk a very thin line, and unlike the benefit of the doubt that their male counterparts enjoy, any outward sign of toughness can be easily misinterpreted as aggression.
The second question concerns competition among women in general. It is women who comment on other women’s appearance and behavior. Women constantly regulate themselves, perhaps to a higher degree than men. Even at a personal non-professional level there is a high degree of competition among women (maybe that’s why we have specific adjectives like “catty” for socially spiteful women). This level of inter-female competitiveness extends to the workplace, and some women feel the need to beat down other women in order to succeed. Especially with increased financial pressures reigning down on Americans in top positions, a competitive edge has emerged to the surface of journalistic discourse.
This competition should not be viewed not as an inherent female trait but as symptomatic of the fact that women still occupy very limited roles in society. At the same time, within the limited spheres of influence that women have, there is a push and desire for higher achievement, higher pay, and higher-ranking jobs. Perhaps it is because women seem to be so limited in their own social realms that they must compete for the opportunities that are available to them, that is to say the rather limited opportunities that are also available to other women as well. It’s a crazy, scary cycle where women who have lost a sense of agency compete with other women for that sense of agency in a world that is still unequal. The individual woman is a victim of inequality, and one of the limited ways that she can regain some sense of equality, some control over her professional and social influence, is to compete with her biggest competitor for influence: her fellow woman.