Women make easier targets for bullies as they are less likely to retaliate.

Women bullying

other women

Due to heightened job insecurity, victimisation in the office is on the rise. And it’s other women at work we need to watch out for. By Karen Jayes

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s the victim of three years of ‘systematic isolation, gossip and demoralisation’ by her head of department, Kirsten, 39, a teacher in Johannesburg, feels at a loss. It started with negative comments about her work – ‘she has never said anything positive’ – then her boss ignored her openly, and in meetings. ‘When I stood in her office and I was the only one there, she wouldn’t look up,’ says Kirsten. Soon, her boss was swamping her with three times the workload of her colleagues, denying her requests to attend conferences and belittling her in front of her superiors. Thandiswe, 30, is a receptionist in a foreign-owned company based in Cape Town. In her first year of

working there, she reported to the PA for the CEO. ‘She speaks for the chairperson, who is male – she is the only one who communicates directly with him,’ says Thandiswe, who describes the company as ‘extremely hierarchical and feardriven’. ‘She’d phone to give me instructions, then slam the phone down while I was trying to clarify what was required,’ she says. ‘She speaks in a foreign language to our superiors so I don’t know what’s going on, and she often makes racist comments in English in front of me. When I try to address her directly she either ignores me or verbally abuses me.’ For Cherise, 50, work life at a large Johannesburg corporation has become a living hell after two years of bullying by her direct boss, who is much younger than her. ‘It started with snide comments about

what I was eating or wearing,’ she says. Then things became more overt. ‘She began interrupting me in meetings, belittling me or “putting me in my place” in front of clients. She claimed the glory for projects I had done, often calling me in to discuss retrenchment. She did everything she could to make me feel worthless and insecure – even though I know I’m competent and hard-working.’ Thanks to the recession, bullying in South Africa is on the rise. Research from the Workplace Dignity Institute (WDI) in Johannesburg suggests we are on a par with the US when it comes to a sharp rise in office bullying. ‘The victims and witnesses of workplace bullying and aggression in South Africa are currently spending 4,5 hours each week dealing with it,’ says Dr Susan Steinmann of the WDI. This means

that bullying costs us about R70 billion a year. Shockingly, women make up nearly 40 percent of office bullies, and they choose other women as targets 71 percent of the time. It’s a statistic that begs the question: how are women supposed to get ahead in the corporate world when we are often our own worst enemies? ‘When you are up against a female bully,’ says Johannesburg career psychologist Dr Cecile Gericke, author of Dance on Your Glass Ceiling (Aardvark), ‘it’s not a glass ceiling you are up against – it’s a concrete wall.’
illustration: cristal smith

How she does it
Gossip, offensive remarks, sarcasm, constant belittlement, criticism and verbal abuse – whether to others or directly to the victim – are some of the tactics industrial psychologist

Charlotte Pieterson identified among female bullies. In her study, ‘Interpersonal Bullying in the Workplace’, published in the 2007 South African Journal of Industrial Psychology, Pieterson describes bullying as behaviour ‘directed systematically at one or more colleagues or subordinates, leading to victimisation of the target’. ‘Bullying can occur at all levels,’ says Pieterson, who is based at the University of Limpopo. ‘It can be a supervisor against a subordinate, or a subordinate against a supervisor. Women might also bully fellow co-workers.’ ‘Women are more covert and under-handed in their bullying,’ says Steinmann, ‘which makes it more dangerous because you can’t see it coming.’ Female bullying, according to the US-based Workplace Bullying Institute, is often

described as relational, meaning that women will use their emotional intelligence as their primary bullying tool, and may even use friendship or allegiances to belittle or isolate their target. Female bullies plan their attacks carefully, says Elsabé Manning, a Johannesburg executive coach and manager of Success Factory. ‘A bully will gain power by isolating her victim, playing one person against another, and creating a divide-and-conquer situation. She will also gossip and threaten, and might wait for the boss to be around to “out” her victim by initiating a discussion about a flaw.’ ‘Women are more subtle,’ says Pieterson. ‘It’s the way we are socialised. But a female bully is the worst kind. If you are a subordinate under a female bully, you are in hell.’

Why she does it
Female bullies, says Manning, care nothing for ‘sisterhood’. ‘Their fear of failure or desire to dominate is stronger than their concern for another’s pain,’ she says. ‘If you are climbing the corporate ladder and you have to step on others, you do – that’s the system we work in, and it works to the bully’s advantage.’ Such aggressive organisational cultures excuse bullying, and even condone it, says Steinmann. Just look at TV programmes such as Big Brother and The Apprentice,
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the effects on the victim can range from loss of sleep to decreased appetite, severe depression and even post-traumatic stress
which are built around bullying, as well as the soap opera stereotype of the sexy, bitchy corporate ladderclimber. These shows encourage female bullies. When she abuses, she appears as if she is playing the game. She chooses other women as victims due to what Steinmann describes as ‘the risk assessment’: other women are less likely to stand up to abuse. Psychologists say that another reason for female bullying is hyperemotionality: we’re more likely to overreact or take the usual office snags and jabs personally. ‘Chronic rage can motivate bullies,’ says Manning. ‘The slightest thing provokes them.’ Women also confuse assertiveness with aggressiveness, says Pieterson. ‘And female bullies also have a drive to prove themselves and hang on to their power – no matter what.’ This drive is often grounded in a perception that there are not enough opportunities for women going around. The 2009 Businesswomen’s Association (BWA) South African Women in Leadership Census indicates that women fill only 3,5 percent of CEO or MD positions in JSE-listed companies, are underrepresented as chairs of boards (we hold 5,8 percent of positions) and fill a meagre 18,6 percent of executive manager positions. In South Africa, it is still a fight for women to get to the top – and this encourages us to bully each other.
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The consequences
Bullies are costly employees. Not only do they traumatise victims, but they undermine individual and company productivity. ‘I’m a manager and I am supposed to be authoritative,’ says Cherise, ‘but my clients choose to rather deal with my boss instead of me. They see I’m always overruled, even though I’m more competent at specific actions than she is, and our company is structured so that it’s my job to do these things.’ The effects on the victim can be devastating. They range from loss of sleep, decreased appetite and physical manifestations of stress (Thandiswe reported profuse bleeding during menstruation, while Kirsten broke a tooth from grinding her teeth due to anxiety) to depression. ‘In 55 percent of cases,’ says Steinmann, ‘we observe severe symptoms of depression, and even post-traumatic stress.’ Victims, especially women, spend most of their time worrying about where they’re going wrong, instead of pinpointing the perpetrator. ‘There is a complete lack of perspective,’ says Pieterson. ‘Because bullying occurs over a sustained period of time, and is systematic, the victim doesn’t realise what is going on, and she becomes so depressed and trapped that she doesn’t know how to get out.’

And despite our modern feminist ideal to ‘have it all’, there comes a point where a woman has to make a choice, especially at the higher levels, says BWA board member Kunyalala Maphisa, due to the pressures of ‘juggling work and family’. Choosing their career, for some women, can come with feelings of envy for those whom they perceive as handling the work-life balance better than them. And this envy is meted out in the office. ‘But,’ says Steinmann, ‘personalities and emotions aside, most of our bullying is opportunistic. If I look at female bullies, they are allowed to do it. There is a lack of policy to deal with them – and supervisors don’t scrutinise them. This means that they feel entitled.’ ‘A female bully is somebody who cannot handle the responsibility that comes with power,’ says Manning. ‘Behind their confidence is deep insecurity.’ This insecurity can also be frustrated by poorly implemented affirmative action policies, which see women bullying in order to hang onto positions for which they are underqualified – or meting out abuse on other women because they are racially or ethnically prejudiced against them. Minorities are especially vulnerable to bullies. ‘If we don’t learn to handle affirmative action, racial and cultural diversity better,’ says Pieterson, ‘bullying will get worse.’

cases, victims simply leave. Nothing is resolved, and they carry the scars of this experience into other jobs, or even their personal lives.’ But there are ways to disarm a bully (see box, right). ‘Unless you find the courage to stand up for yourself,’ says Manning, ‘you are enabling the bully.’ Being meek and trying your best to please someone who is victimising you will only encourage further bullying. ‘If you want to stop the behaviour, you must stop the pay-off,’ she says. Thandiswe launched a complaint with her HR manager via email. When she received no response, she phoned the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). ‘I work in an open-plan office,’ she says, ‘so everyone heard me make the call. I requested a grievance form, and when I put down the phone I asked my HR manager to help me fill out the form. She called me into her office and asked me what was wrong. When I mentioned the unanswered email, she pretended that she had not seen it – even though I could tell from her computer that it had been read. I don’t think they thought I had the guts to call the CCMA. Now, the PA is quieter around me, though there is still tension. At least she knows I won’t tolerate abuse.’

How to disarm a bully
You need to act quickly, says industrial psychologist charlotte pieterson — and keep a paper trail. document all incidents of abuse and action in a diary, and keep a record of all emails. south african labour laws protect you against bullying, says executive coach elsabé manning. ‘if an employee approaches an employer and says they are being bullied, and that employer does nothing, then you can lay a case against the organisation itself.’ it’s easy to build a case if you’ve taken the right steps and act swiftly, she says. Name iT ‘acknowledging that you are being bullied is difficult; there is a lot of shame around it,’ says dr susan steinmann of the workplace dignity institute. ‘we think people will immediately ask, “what did you do wrong to make her behave in this way?” sometimes a bully is just a bully. naming her, and naming yourself as the victim, is the first step in breaking the spiral of abuse.’ CoNfroNT THe bully ‘mirror or reflect the bully’s behaviour,’ says career psychologist cecile gericke. identify what it is she is doing that is upsetting you. use ‘i’ messages, such as ‘i’ve noticed that you are very frustrated with me today. can you tell me why?’ or ‘i’ve noticed that you felt i did not perform. what can i do better?’ the ‘i’ message will hold the bully and contain them. make sure you are ready for it. ‘Be conscious in the present, and make sure all your energy is in your body and mind.’ if you must, take some time off to prepare for this, and record the meeting in a diary. Talk To HumaN resourCes if you are not in the right frame of mind to confront your bully, or you have done so and her behaviour continues, lodge a complaint with your human resources manager. they are legally obligated to act on it, and they may call in a mediator or hold a disciplinary hearing. ‘i lodged a complaint and i got a hearing,’ says cherise, 50, ‘and the bully ended up looking highly incompetent.’ Go ouTside if your situation worsens or your organisational culture is not conducive to disarming bullies, then you can contact the commission for conciliation, mediation and arbitration (call 011 377 6650 or visit they will help you launch a formal grievance in which all parties will be called outside of the office for mediation by an independent body that abides by constitutional laws against bullies.

The way forward
How you are able to deal with a bully depends very much on the culture of your organisation, says Pieterson. ‘Most people don’t confront a bully, because the culture of the company forbids it. In most

When You Work for a Bully: Assessing Your Options and Taking Action by susan futterman (croce) Girl Wars: 12 Strategies That Will End Female Bullying by cheryl dellasega (fireside)


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