The topic of mean girls who grow up into women who bully in the workplace has been covered a lot in the media lately.
It could be that the economy is still trying to recover and a few of these mean girls are bosses. It could be that it was a slow news day and they needed something else about women to talk about since they've practically exhausted the GOP attack on all things vagina. Or it could be that it is a real issue that does psychological harm and that it is a real impediment to professional progress.
I tend to think it is the latter.
Mean girls who grow up to be women who bully in the workplace are much more dangerous than one would think. I should know, I had a bully boss.
My last major corporate position was with a privately held company in the midwest. There weren't that many women in management, a lot were at the junior management level, only a handful made it to marketing manager and only one or two were vice presidents. This boss of mine was a product manager, had been stuck at that spot for years and years, her boss, the marketing manager, had actually reported to her when he was in the same rotational program that I was in. I am setting the stage here, this woman had reached as far as she could go because she really wasn't qualified. She has a bachelor's degree and because her mother has once worked at the company at a high executive level, she had a job for life.
The mean bully woman cursed ad nauseum in the workplace and when called on it, made it a point to curse and degrade everyone in a department meeting. She was tolerated and feared by the entire department, even the male boss who let her do whatever she wanted, including sabatoging my budding career.
I came to the company fresh from my MBA program and had had stellar reviews all through my rotations. I was making strides in a company that had few woman who looked like me. I thought I would be with the company for a long time, as that was the bill of goods they sold everyone who was recruited from graduate school.
When I look back at that experience, sometimes I think I made the mistake of being somewhat given no choice but to accept the associate product manager position in this particular department. I had returned from a six-month-maternity-leave to find a very different company. It was now post 9-11 and several of my colleagues in the training program had been let go, some before they even finished rotation, all had moved to this decidedly midwestern city and bought houses because of the promises made by this company. A lot of departments had enacted hiring freezes and the rest were using rank-and-hank performance review tactics to lay off staff, despite their reputation as a company that never lays off. The air in the place was so thick you could cut it with a knife. The last thing was that the manager who had previously mentored and guided all of us associates through our rotational program had been reassigned and someone else was in her place, someone who did not value the executive-in-training program. It was a recipe for disaster.
My husband and I had moved to this midwestern city for this job. He essentially followed me since he was doing a post-doctoral research project and was planning to drive to the university two hours away. We had purchased a house and were getting acclimated to this border city on a border stateline.
Hindsight is 20-20.
I began my 18-month rotations with earnest, great ideas, and support. I had been offered a full-time position halfway through. It was in a department I admired with women who were all progressive. It was not the "cash cow" product line and therefore had the opportunity to be innovative and work with outside companies. I should have taken it, but, someone felt I should finish the rotations and get some time in the "core product line." My big mistake. My second big mistake was feeling like I had to accept the position I ended up in without waiting for the responses from the the other two (all internal, two were with subsidiaries in other cities). I should have take the subsidiary, especially since one was with a product line I had developed research reaching a new target audience and the other was one that interested me in innovation. Perhaps it was because we had already bought our house and my husband was half-way through his post-doc, I'm not sure, but I took the only opening.
The tiny little demon-in-mules was a terror.
My boss presented herself as all syrupy sweet, cooing over my infant daughter when my husband stopped by during lunch. She offered me two product lines and seemed to be helpful. Perhaps all of it was a guise to get past the three months that would have let me change my mind, she knew of the other offers and also knew that I was highly recruited to the company.
Then something shifted.
I had just returned from a product planning and research trip out west. I had completed an exhaustive competitive analysis and offered innovative ideas for the upcoming product line. I was finding out manufacturing processes on my own since my boss refused to do the teaching part of her job that all associate product managers were supposed to have. Nevertheless, I handled meetings, worked with the artists and writers, and was putting in time.
And she became a demon.
We were reorganized and had a new vice president of marketing and all the marketing and product managers were scurrying around hoping their product line would not be on the chopping block. She had a reputation for destroying careers, I found out later, and was secure in her spot due to her mom. She had reduced a male counterpart to actually begging to keep his job after she demoted him, berated him, and then reassigned him. I found this out later, also, when he came to my office to offer solace after a very terse interchange.
Mean girls engage in psychological warfare and tactics that can put even the most confident person off kilter. This was this type of person.
My final encounter with her was particularly bristling and unexpected. She literally came out of left field and unleashed a mouthful of expletives and condemnation and derogatory language on me that had me in stunned silence. I had worked in several entities in bigger cities and had never encountered anything like this. I had on my total shock face.
It was then that I learned that HR departments were not advocates for the employees but instruments for the corporation and that even the ombudsmen and diversity counsels were simply tools. No one would help because this woman was connected straight to the partners and had a position for life she was impenetrable.
My only recourse was to start looking for something else. Unfortunately for me at the time, I was pregnant and it was post 9-11 in a midwestern city that the only other major company had been laying off people left and right and left again.
I went to the marketing manager and told him what was going on and that since I was pregnant, I wasn't going to stay and risk losing my baby because of this woman's violent verbal assaults that were now coming almost daily. He wouldn't advocate for a transfer so I packed up my office one day when all the managers were at some retreat. It was over.
When I got into my van that last time in that corporate parking lot, I felt a sense of relief and burden lift from my shoulders. I had just lost a sizable income but felt in some ways I had gained back myself. I knew I couldn't continue to be in that department because her goal was not for me to leave the company, she was just a miserable woman who had a reputation of taking joy in cutting down junior associates. She had destroyed entire product lines in other departments and I never put the dots together that this was the same, infamous, "J...." who no one liked and everyone tolerated.
Fear seems to be the weapon and the condition of these women. This one turned her own inadequacies into weapons against other promising professionals who were sure to pass her up, she had already experienced it in two other departments before she ended up in the one where our paths crossed. Fear is also the weapon they use to intimidate others, especially since the economic great recession when many professionals have lost their careers and the new workplace is demanding 50-60 hour work weeks at 1/3rd the pay. They take pride and pleasure in how much pain they can inflict on others.
Good Morning America in 2011 did a report on bullying in the workplace that included women who confessed to being bullied and the damage it did to them.
CNN did a recent report on them and one of the male reviewers commented that men held some responsibilities because these women sometimes acted like this to gain attention from men or to break the glass ceiling. They think they have to cut down any other woman because surely there isn't room at the top for all of them. Their behavior is even worse if their staff is black or latina, they see them as a threat to be eliminated. The report went on to suggest that the majority of them are white, educated - though not highly, and from wealthier families, exactly the profile of the woman boss I endured, they have never been told their behavior was unacceptable and think their wealth or connections gives them a free pass to assassinate the character, esteem, and potential of others. They are manipulative and psychologically damaging, much like the high school character of a Lifetime Movie my daughter and I watched on Saturday. The ringleader preyed upon the weaknesses and/or fears of the others, often choosing a lesser person or characteristic to exploit, in my case, being the only MBA and only black and pregnant marketing professional in our department.
Just like bullying in high school is a problem that doesn't have an easy solution, so does bullying and mean women in the workplace. 27% of American workers report being bullied and at least one state has outlawed it. Maybe there is hope as more and more reports come out about the damage of bullying. CNN recently reported about a 20 year old who started an organization to combat mean girl behavior. From the report of school bus monitor, Karen Klein, who was bullied by a bunch of middle school boys, women are the brunt of that type of psychological and emotionally damaging bullying behavior more than men. It is also reported that 70% of women are bullied by other women, perhaps because women are relational.
As for me, I decided my sanity, self-esteem, and character was worth more than the salary of that position. I walked away. I am also teaching my 8 and 10 year old girls to advocate for themselves and to recognize bullying behavior. We talk about emotions and what some of their classmates do that can hurt the feelings of others. We also chat about when the sisters argue and when it steps over the line. I have hope that in these days of the Internet (we didn't have facebook or social media during my experience, I can only imagine it would be worse) and more awareness of the problem that more people will speak up and advocate for the victims of this type of emotional assault.
I've since had fulfilling opportunities to write, to teach, to lead a staff, to mentor, and to raise my children, and to me, it was worth packing up and walking away.