The bias that drives 'catty' workplace conflict

The bias that drives 'catty' workplace conflict

When women work for other women, clashes are notorious – even inevitable. But that narrative doesn't tell the whole story.
10 Abril 2023

Adela was 23 years old when she started working for a global consumer-goods company in London. Her team was predominantly female, including her bosses. During her first week on the job, one of the few men she worked with strolled over and dropped a book on her desk. “He told me it would serve as my manual for working here,” she says.

The book was The Devil Wears Prada, the 2003 novel by Lauren Weisberger, about a young woman who endures behaviour that borders on psychological and emotional abuse at the hands of her fashion-magazine editor boss, who’s also a woman. 

“It was kind of hilarious at the time, but with hindsight it was really sad,” says Adela. “Because the book actually did mirror my future relationship with many of my female bosses at that workplace.” 

Adela, who is withholding her surname for career considerations, recalls that the work environment at the company was “toxic”, built on a culture of “secrecy”. Her female bosses, she says, were “image obsessed”, and unwilling to embrace fresh ideas or perspectives. She says that created an atmosphere of fear, where juniors felt uncomfortable speaking out, and everyone seemed defensive. After six months, she quit and made a resolution for the rest of her career: never work in a team of only women again – and be very careful choosing to work for another woman at all.

Adela’s experience of conflict might be more dramatic than that of other women who have worked under a female boss, but it’s certainly not atypical.

In discussions about what helps women succeed in the workplace, experts often talk about the importance of female role models. And while there’s plenty of data showing that female mentorship can be advantageous for women, there’s just as much anecdotal evidence indicating that having a female boss hinders a woman’s chances to be happy, successful and supported at work. And it’s the latter narrative that has prevailed in the popular imagination.

There’s no comprehensive proof senior women are less helpful – or more harmful – to junior women, compared with senior men to junior men. Yet plenty of women, like Adela, have experienced other women making their lives hard at work, even driving them to quit.

Yet it may not be that women are infighting more – instead, for a number of reasons, conflicts among female employees and their women bosses often draw most of the workplace attention. In the 1970s, academics even coined a term for the phenomenon: the ‘queen bee syndrome’ – the idea that high-ranking female employees jostling for a rare seat at the table creates a hostile work environment for female subordinates.

But the thinking behind that theory has increasingly fallen out of favour, as experts have established that the high-profiling of these woman-to-woman conflicts is about more than just individual women being mean, territorial or ‘catty’, as they’re sometimes described. Instead, they’re manifestations of gendered norms that still shape the workplace today – and may hold back other women from reaching their full professional potential.

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Assertive and competitive leaders

There are many long-held gendered stereotypes in society. Academics say that, predominantly, men are expected to be assertive, competitive and ambitious; while women should be nurturing, caring and compassionate. Consistently reinforced throughout broader society, these stereotypes play out in management styles, too.

To succeed in the workplace, experts say that these deep-seated biases mean both genders feel that success is tied to ‘male’ qualities. And despite progress around gender roles, men and women largely buy into the myth that men should be dominant and women submissive, and that men should lead while women follow.

“There’s a basic assumption that women might endorse or believe in gender stereotypes less than men … this assumption is simply not correct,” explains Francesca Manzi, assistant professor of management at the London School of Economics. “But men and women are raised and grow up in the same society with the same norms. And as a result of that, we’re all internalising the same gendered norms and beliefs.”

For women in the workplace, data shows how entrenched these stereotypes remain. According to Gallup, since 1982, women in the US have consistently been more likely than men to say they prefer a male boss.

Through her research, Manzi – who specialises in the study of covert manifestations of gender bias – shows that it’s not necessarily the case that women have a stronger aversion to working for a female boss, per se. Rather, it’s simply a societal norm for a man to be in a more senior position than a woman; a woman at the top may seem at odds with society’s perception of what constitutes a typical leader.

Yet data shows this bias against women leaders isn’t rooted in fact. Much research has concluded that women can actually be better managers, especially during times of crisis.

Men and women are raised and grow up in the same society with the same norms. And as a result of that, we’re all internalising the same gendered norms and beliefs – Francesca Manzi

“And yet, when people ask if they want a female manager, they say no,” says Kelly Ceynowa, an organisational psychologist, coach and consultant based in New York City. Ceynowa says that in even in an organisation which aspires to be a meritocracy – a structure in which the best people get promoted regardless of their gender, race or any other characteristic trait – the bias still exists. "The meritocracy is based on male standards of successful management” itself.

A ‘double bind’

Manzi says that because of these perceptions, when some women reach positions of power, they take on more male-ascribed traits. These women might also have previously developed what’s generally considered to be a more ‘masculine’ persona to gain seniority.

“Women are being taught and rewarded for being more masculine,” says Manzi. “If you want to make it and be seen as brilliant, you want to identify with the group that tends to be seen as having those characteristics. And those people still tend to be men.” 

As a result, women “might also tend to dissociate more from women as a means of distinguishing themselves as a leader”, adds Manzi. “They don’t want to be seen as having the character traits that are typically associated with women, and aren’t associated with being a strong and capable leader. And that can cause these perceived conflicts,” she adds.

Because of these male traits that drive leadership perceptions, says Ceynowa, it’s ‘more acceptable’ for men to be in workplace conflict. However, when women stand their ground and are seen as aggressive, it can be particularly jarring, noteworthy and memorable, since they are not ‘supposed’ to be in conflict, based on their expected gender roles.

“The conflicts are the same. What is different is that men are operating in structures that were designed with them in mind. I think the perception that women-women workplace conflict is unique is that we see it more because it stands out, not because it is unique,” she says. "Men are in continuous conflict at work, but we are comfortable with how they handle it.”

This puts women in a “double bind”, says Michael Smets, professor of management at Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford. “If they are nurturing and kind, they are easily considered ‘too female’, [but] if they display competence and assertiveness, they are easily branded ‘too male’, and often inauthentic.”

And without other female leaders in the workplace displaying alternate leadership styles, “women may be forced to experiment to find their personal leadership style, or replicate the behaviours of male role models”, says Smets. “In both cases, conflict is likely to flare up, and be articulated in ways peers or reports may not expect, and the surprise may lead them to experience the conflict as particularly intense.”

Experts agree that more women at the top would help shift long-held, collective biases of what characteristics make a good leader (Credit: Getty Images)

In a 2012 paper, academics Leah Sheppard and Karl Aquino wrote about a study they conducted in which participants read a scenario describing a conflict between two managers. They found that participants perceived the conflict to be more problematic if both managers were women than if one manager or both managers were men.

“These findings suggest that participants – whether women or men – are predisposed by gender stereotypes to believe that workplace conflict between women is more serious than conflict involving men, and that women involved in conflict with each other are more likely to have poor working relationships, lose commitment to their jobs, and quit their organisations,” concluded Sheppard and Aquino.

They added that such perceptions may actually result in self-fulfilling prophecies among women, who, having anticipated long-term difficulties in the aftermath of a conflict, are less likely to seek out a positive resolution.   

The ‘queen bee’ myth

One reason why gendered stereotypes of what makes a good leader persist is that there are still so few women in positions of power. More women at the top, agree experts, would help shift long-held, collective biases of what characteristics make a good leader. 

One crude but telling measure: in the UK’s FTSE 100 index of top publicly traded companies, male CEOs outnumber their female counterparts by a ratio of about 10 to one. In US’s Fortune 500, the ratio is even worse.

It’s this scarcity of opportunity that bred the ‘queen bee syndrome’ theory – a term that some scholars say might itself be exacerbating the gender bias that makes women’s conflict so infamous. “Calling women ‘queen bees’ is its own form of devaluation, with its impact on the denigration and marginalisation of women in leadership,” write Isabel Fernandez-Mateo, a professor at London Business School, and Sarah Kaplan, a professor at the University of Toronto.

Manzi agrees. She says using terms like ‘queen bee’ might even set up women to internalise those labels and exacerbate the situation by creating conflicts and rifts that weren’t there in the first place.   

For progress, experts agree that the underlying stereotype of a good leader needs to change, so that women don’t have to feel like they need to adapt to a characteristically male leadership style to climb and be respected.

If they are nurturing and kind, they are easily considered ‘too female’, [but] if they display competence and assertiveness, they are easily branded ‘too male’, and often inauthentic – Michael Smets

“The onus should not be on women to fix themselves. It’s the system that needs fixing,” says Manzi. To do that, she says, “we need to create workplaces where women leaders are seen as less of an anomaly, and in which different types of leadership are embraced more widely”. 

Having more role models – both female and male – with a diverse array of character traits that aren’t necessarily traditionally gendered, will certainly help. “Role models are an important part of the development of social identities,” write Ruth Seay, at University of Exeter Business School, and Val Singh, of Cranfield School of Management, UK.

Having more women as visible role models might also diminish some of the competition, especially if opportunities and chances for women to reach the top no longer appear as scarce: there will no longer be a sense of all women in an organisation or team having to compete for the single seat at the top.

But by their very nature, the stereotypes driving workplace conflict among women are deep-rooted and therefore difficult to shift. Management conflict like Adela experienced will always exist, of course, whether men or women are in charge. Yet the biases around leadership do not have to endure alongside them.

Experts agree that employees and managers – as well as researchers and commentators – can make strides towards correcting the workplace myth that all female bosses are difficult to work for. A first step is to understand that perceptions of these conflicts might also be based on ingrained biases that need to be shaken off for progress. 

Workers themselves can also play their part. Manzi says that every employee can check themselves. They can ask themselves whether they’re judging the quality of someone in power based on traits and characteristics that might have little or nothing to do with their actual ability to lead well. 

“We also need to be more tolerant of different personality styles in leadership,” says Manzi. “There’s no one type of personality that makes a good leader.”

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