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Management The catfight myth: The truth about female relationships at work

Mean Girls, Meaner Women. The Stiletto in Your Back. Catfight. Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman.

Those are just some of the books published in the past several years that look at female rivalry. Born of them – and first-hand witnessed workplace confrontations between women – has come the belief that the sunny notion of sisterhood is not front-and-centre in the office.

But diversity proponents Andrea Kramer and Alton Harris argue the sour view of female relationships is nonsense – a “truth” we have to wipe from our mind.

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“First, there is no empirical evidence – none, nada, nil, zero, zilch – that women have more frequent conflicts in working with other women than men have in working with other men or women and men have in working together. Second, there is also no empirical evidence that women are more mean-spirited, antagonistic or untrustworthy in their dealings with other women than men are in dealing with other men. Third, there is considerable, reliable empirical evidence that women actually spend more time supporting, counselling and advocating for women than men do,” they write in their book It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace.

In workplaces, people and their visions can collide – men or women. But the authors note that women expect their relationships with other women to be close and harmonious, and when that doesn’t occur – the relationship is “all business” and the colleague not all that concerned with feelings – it gets magnified or even becomes explosive. The not-particularly-supportive colleague is viewed as disagreeable and unlikable, while a man acting similarly is given a pass because there aren’t high expectations of his gender.

Clashes are also viewed differently by others. We expect men to joust in the workplace, so when there is tension or conflict between two men, it’s just considered part of the normal rough and tumble. But women are supposed to be soft and sweet, so their battles are seen as personality clashes driven by personal antagonism or petty jealousy. “As a result, women’s conflicts with other women are frequently viewed as catfights, with negative consequences for organizational productivity and meriting serious concern by co-workers and managers,” Ms. Kramer and Mr. Harris write.

When those conflicts receive more attention than men’s, the authors note women are far more likely to view the skirmish as more serious than they might otherwise. And because those conflicts violate gender norms, women are more likely to be penalized by poor evaluations or co-worker animosity, unlike similar conflicts between men.

They stress it’s the workplace at fault, not the women. Disagreements are inevitable in the workplace. Since, in many workplaces, the career-enhancing assignments, projects and responsibilities are more limited for women than men, that can intensify competition among them. And since they say most workplaces are led and controlled by men with strong masculine norms, that intensifies the problem, as women and men are not evaluated, compensated or promoted equally.

“Don’t get sucked into believing the narrative that same-gender conflict is a problem for women but not men,” they warn. “These views can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, playing directly into prevailing gender stereotypes that men are cut out for leadership but women are not – blaming the source of gender inequality on women’s own behaviour, rather than on systemic gender bias.”

They stress that women often have terrific working relationships with other women. Those relationships might not become intimate friendships, but they are supportive, co-operative and enjoyable. As well, keep in mind that women worry much more about their workplace relationships with other women than men worry about their workplace relationships with other men. So don’t exaggerate the normal tensions that occur.

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Quick hits

  • A survey of 1,000 employees in the U.S. by Cornerstone talent management found that 87 per cent believe three-day weekends are better for stress relief than a long vacation, as the individual can relax without fearing the burden awaiting his or her return.
  • Shark Tank co-star Barbara Corcoran doesn’t invest in companies that use fancy buzzwords. She figures “burn rate” means they are burning her money up. “Pivoting” means the company made three mistakes and is preparing to make a fourth. “All these fancy terms disguise failure,” she tells Thrive Global.
  • Here’s another fancy, obfuscatory phrase: “I’d love to pick your brain.” Journalist Sami Allen says that translates into “I’d love for you to give me information on something without anything in return, and I’m going to ask in a vague way that hopefully sounds like I’m not asking anything.” She adds it’s important to remember that the person whose brain you’d like to pick is busy, so don’t be coy.
  • In a typical meeting, three people do 70 per cent of the talking, research at the Kellogg School of Management found.
  • Is it better to be interviewed for a job first, last or somewhere between? Executive recruiter Gerald Walsh says it’s better to consider the actual time it’s held, whatever the order of interviewees. Most people are at their peak for the first seven hours after waking up, then hit a trough, usually after lunch, and recover in the late afternoon or early evening.

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