Only one year after moving her family into her “dream” neighborhood, Mary’s family relocated. She and her children were continually excluded from neighborhood activities by an already tight-knit group of moms.
Then there’s Kerry, who ended up in the hospital due to stress, when her new female manager forced her to meet unrealistic goals, again and again, though she was already a top-performing saleswoman. Even worse, the manager was a former colleague with whom Kerry used to empathize about the challenges of returning to work with a newborn at home.
These are just two of many examples in Susan’s Skog’s new book, Mending the Sisterhood & Ending Women’s Bullying, in which Skog explores the topic of women bullying other women. In her research, she found that the behavior exists at all socio-economic levels and life stages. It’s not discussed or acknowledged as much as childhood bullying is, yet the effects can be equally hurtful. And, as Skog says in the book, “we can’t rock the world to the degree we want to if we”re raging against each other.”
WHAT IT DOES TO FAMILIES
When a mom is bullied, it has the potential to affect everyone around her, says Dr. Thelma Duffey, president of the American Counseling Association. “Some people respond by becoming isolated and self-protective; shielding their children from social situations where they, too, could feel the pain. As you can imagine, when children are limited in their social interactions because their mom is being bullied … this can be doubly devastating.”
Other effects, according to Duffey, include “aggression and anger, which could perpetuate the bullying and leave their children feeling embarrassed and awkward around their peers,” or “a form of role reversal, leaving the child to manage his or her own feelings of loss and rejection in isolation and without support.”
On the flip side, if a parent is the bully, their children often carry those bullying attitudes and behaviors into their own adult lives, says Duffey. Children of bullying moms are often quick tempered and lack empathy. “They are impatient and intolerant of others, even those who love them,” says Duffey. “This means that not only are their relationships on the outside superficial … the relationships that do matter to them also carry an edge of harshness, ridicule and sometimes contempt.”
WHY WOMEN BULLY
With so many negative consequences, why do women bully one another? There’s more than one reason, but most answers seem to have roots in women’s insecurity.
“Many times, it’s to feel a sense of personal power,” says Duffey. “When people use this tactic to feel big and make someone else small, it’s only temporarily fulfilling. Behaving in this way leaves a person feeling hungry to repeat the behavior. After a while, the person needs to mock, tease, manipulate and feel big at someone else’s expense to feel any sense of power at all.”
According to Mending the Sisterhood, some women may bully because they are not conditioned to be confrontational or conflict solvers: “How many of us were conditioned to stay calm, not rock the boat and people please? But that suppressed, fierce energy or natural instinct to say something then tends to go sideways or underground into subversive, snarky territory.”
IF YOU ARE BEING BULLIED
Bullying occurs “when there is a pattern of behavior,” Skog says, and not every disagreement between women should be classified as such. It can take many forms, including shunning, lies being told behind one’s back or constant judgmental comments. If you are being bullied, here are a few strategies to adopt, based on the book.
Make health and safety your highest priority. “Surround yourself with women who bring out the best in you,” Skog says. Seek counseling and/or support so you can heal. If the issues are happening at work, consider professional legal help if your manager isn’t investigating your concerns.
Document behavior. Record facts, dates and conversations. If you ask a bully to stop, record both sides of the conversation. Report abuse to supervisors, if applicable. If you choose to pursue legal action, having a record of incidents will make your case stronger.
Learn how to negotiate. Learn strategies to remain calm, professional and effective in resolving conflicts. Women who aren’t used to negotiating can be more susceptible to intimidation.
Leave a situation that’s chronically toxic. Sometimes, it’s clear that someone’s values will never match yours. This might mean altering your school drop-off practices, changing jobs or pursuing other ways to volunteer. It may be tough, but your health, career and personal life may suffer unless you change your situation.
When it comes to women’s bullying, Skog says we can learn a lot from the models developed in schools. She is optimistic that more companies are examining the issue, because when bullying behavior exists, ‘their bottom line is impacted,” she says. Here are some things women can do to help prevent it.
Develop anti-bullying ground rules or policies at work. At company meetings, if someone lapses into snarky comments, set a guideline that will help everyone get back on track. At her SITS Girls events designed to educate women bloggers, founder Tiffany Romero incorporates assigned seating to break up cliques and encourage networking. Though some women request to sit with their friends, she respectfully sticks to her policy, guided by the belief that it will help everyone feel more supported and included.
Shift negativity into positive pursuits. From personal experience, Skog remembers being in a workplace in which her colleagues spenta lot of time gossiping about her decisions, instead of going to her to resolve a conflict. “It impacted how work was getting done, and deadlines were not being honored,” she says. “I (responded with), ‘I”d love to see your gifts and talents be given the chance to shine—here are a couple of assignments in which you can show that.”
Seek self-awareness. Fort Collins mom of two Jenny Winchell remembers repeated comments that her mother would make about other moms” life choices when she was growing up. “It was so common, and now one of my sisters does the same thing, and it has hurt our relationship.” As a mom raising a daughter today, she tries to be aware of what she says about others. “Your kids are going to hear how you talk to your friends,” she says. “If we are always making snarky comments, we are not connecting with each other, and it can be a missed opportunity.”
Include others. Be mindful if your child is on a sports team in which most of the parents know each other, but perhaps some do not. Make extra efforts to get to know the new families. Likewise, if you are a room parent or school volunteer, make sure that you ask for the talents of all available parents, not just the ones with whom you are most comfortable.
Find ordinary moments to talk about this issue. Woman-to-woman bullying is still somewhat of an unspoken topic. If you”ve read this article, ask your friends if they”ve ever experienced adult bullying. While not all women have experienced it, if more are aware that it exists, they can identify it and help stop it. “Don’t dance around it,” says Skog, “dance into it.”