Female undergrads OK with some bullying behaviours

Isolation, teasing considered morally acceptable, finds study
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/16/2015

Despite the considerable publicity around bullying — particularly at schools — the message may not be getting through when it comes to people entering the workforce, judging by a study.

Young women preparing for the business world tend to see teasing, isolation and other relationship-oriented actions as being more acceptable behaviours in the workplace compared to their male counterparts, found Workplace Bullying: The Perceptions of Canadian University Students from Brock University in Saint Catharines, Ont.

It’s a great concern because students need to be made aware of what bullying behaviours are and the impact they may have on a targeted person, said study author Lisa Barrow, assistant professor at the Goodman School of Business at Brock University.

“If this awareness is not raised, then bullying will continue to occur in the workplace. And workplace bullying has a negative impact not only on the targeted person but also the organization and its ability to achieve its goals.”

The study

Three hundred Brock undergraduate business school students completed an online survey that listed 14 statements of behaviours commonly associated with workplace bullying, including: sabotaging someone’s work; public humiliation; spreading gossip and rumours; failing to give credit where it is due; removing responsibility; and setting someone up for failure.

Participants were asked to rate how acceptable these behaviours are on a five-point scale ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” 

Certain behaviours were considered “morally acceptable” by females: teasing; isolation; denial of opportunities; setting unreasonable deadlines; and assigning meaningless tasks.

“There are five behaviours that women, female students in particular, thought that it would be OK to embrace and display in the workplace,” said Barrow.

“Many of them, the behaviours, seem pretty innocuous and that’s a concern... especially as it pertains to female bullies since we have a high number of incidences of women bullying other women, and women tend to rely on relational aggression. And so one characteristic of workplace bullying that fits in with relational aggression is isolation — whether it’s social isolation or physical isolation.”

Gender differences

For the most part, women are more relationship-oriented while men tend to be more task-oriented, she said.

“Women need to connect with each other and so that need to relate to others provides an opportunity for someone to abuse those relationships and to manipulate those relationships.” 

Manipulation and aggression come in when a woman feels threatened by a targeted person who may be smarter, prettier or better-liked, so a female bully would rely on social isolation, said Barrow, “encouraging others not to speak to the targeted person, excluding this person from activities, either within the organization or after-work activities.”

While men tend to act out more, be more physical, “with women, it’s a little more subtle and the goal is to wreak havoc in the relationship,” she said.

Women will destroy the social fabric of a work team, said Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Wash.

“They will play divide-and-conquer games, they will isolate, ostracize and humiliate by distancing, socially excluding their targeted person, and so they do much more of a social game whereas men are more blatantly power-driven and autocratic and they will use the power of their network,” he said.

“Women really know how to hurt when they bully because they go right at the soul of the person they target, versus ‘I’m going to destroy your career, I’m going to make it tough for you to transfer, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that’ — that’s men. That’s how men perceive it, it’s regulating their status and their career and future; whereas women perceive bullying as a direct, frontal, emotional abuse assault.”

Women are passive aggressive in a way, said Namie.

“Men are proud — they’re stupidly proud about it. Women understand the social undesirability of what they’re doing so they do attempt to hide it.”

But the Brock University’s study results are surprising and perplexing as women, on average, tend to be more sensitive, according to Jennifer Berdahl, a professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

“These kinds of behaviours, they’re more aware of their likely impact on victims and therefore are more likely to find them unacceptable,” she said. 

“Women at least are disproportionately targeted for a lot of these behaviours in the workplace and elsewhere as a lower status group, on average, so people who are in those kinds of one-down positions tend to recognize these kinds of behaviours for the potential threat they might pose.”

But then people who tend to engage in certain behaviours are less likely to find them unacceptable, said Berdahl.

“It’s possible that some of the (Brock) students identify with these means of resolving social conflicts as things that they’ve themselves done, if there’s gender differences there.”

Isolation has been attributed as a more passive way of bullying — it’s social rejection, she said, and research on school bullying suggests that kind of ostracism might be a more common method for girls and more acceptable for them.

“It’s not acceptable for girls to go pummel each other or pound their chests so if they’re going to punish someone socially, that might be the route they take.”

As for teasing, there’s been work on gender suggesting social ridicule and teasing is one of men’s worst fears, based on the idea of precarious masculinity — that boys and men constantly have to prove themselves in society and that manhood and male identity are very much based on respect and power, said Berdahl.

“Ridicule or teasing is a way of tearing someone’s power down, of diminishing them in the light of others,” she said. 

“This is one way in which women can harass or put down men or each other that men might be particularly sensitive to.”

There’s also been research suggesting teasing can be a combination of affection and aggression, so women might think of it more as affectionate, and men think of it as aggressive, when they respond to the study questions, said Berdahl.

Leadership behaviours

As for female students finding meaningless tasks, unfair deadlines and denial of opportunities more acceptable behaviours than men, it’s possible that’s because women see these as normal parts of leadership.

“They may not even know or realize that these behaviours can be construed as bullying behaviours because they may see their colleagues treating others the same way,” said Barrow. 

“And what happens is when a manager is called on this behaviour, they may say, ‘I’m just trying to make sure productivity is increased’ or ‘I want to make sure our deadlines are met and our responsibilities and objectives and goals for the department are met.’ So they can hide behind the organizational expectations to justify their behaviour regarding undue pressure to perform, or unrealistic deadlines.”

Women may feel less entitled to leadership positions, said Berdahl.

“(It’s about) looking at it through a chronic status or power lens and thinking that women have been socialized to be in more subordinate or subsistent positions. Today, women college students are not like they were in the 50s but there are still all kinds of gender socializations and expectations set up for what your roles are going to be in society and in organizations.”

Women may respond to workplace cues the same way men do — in other words, they may think they have to act like a man to be a manager because aggression is heavily rewarded, said Namie.

“That’s what success would be — they’re using it as the definition of success, as would a man.”

But a lot of these students are in the midst of learning how to become effective leaders so it’s important to discuss the impact of bullying behaviours, said Barrow.

“What the study reveals is that students see some bullying behaviours as acceptable, and I believe it’s because either they don’t have a clear understanding of the impact of bullying or they assume that bullying ends once high school ends, and once they become adults. 

“And so they really haven’t had a chance to consider their behaviour and the impact it may have on others.”

The study’s results suggest a failure in schooling, said Namie.

“Somehow, the message is missed… the message in the school-age anti-bullying programs are somehow diluted or forgotten,” he said. 

“What enables bullying is either a laissez-faire leader at the very top who’s so disengaged and disconnected… so hands-off, they’re blind, they don’t give a damn, and that’s how bullies will thrive... or they are in the mold, they are bullies themselves, and all these young people that said, ‘Well, I found that ethically OK’ are crazy.

“To rate unethical conduct, immoral conduct as ethical shows a huge gap in our education, that’s for darn sure.”

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