Women Bullies Often Target Other Women

The bullying magazine executive played by Meryl Streep in the film "The Devil Wears Prada" is played for laughs, but women bullying other female employees in the real world is no laughing matter.

Joan Frye, who worked in a hospital in Nashville, Tenn., said she endured nearly two years of bullying at the hands of her female boss, which led her to a mental breakdown and a long court battle.

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Just four months into her job, Frye, 62, said she knew there was going to be trouble with her boss.

"She had me come into her office for my 90-day review, and she started, 'We don't click. ... What are you going to do about it?' Not what are we going to do, but what are you going to do about it," Frye said. "I knew then that we were going to have a serious problem."

Frye said her boss undermined her in front of employees, isolated her from senior management, gave her impossible deadlines and humiliated her. She dreaded going to work.

"One day she would be nice, and the next day she would attack," Frye said. "She would glare at me. She would make noise like 'haaa' if I was talking to somebody. She would walk between us and turn her back on me."

After she complained to human resources and senior management, she said, she was transferred to another department. After six months in her new position, Frye said the problems with her previous boss led to a mental breakdown, forcing her to take a medical leave of absence.

Frye filed a lawsuit against the company. Four years later, after exhausting her savings, the case was dismissed. The court did, however, describe her old boss as "an equal opportunity oppressor," calling her management style "abrasive" and declaring that the difficult relationship contributed to "disabling problems" for Frye.

Suffering in Silence

Many women are afraid to confront their bullying bosses and suffer in silence, said Gary Namie, a psychologist and founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute.

"You should not have to risk clinical depression, debilitating anxiety, or -- and as 30 percent of women experience -- post-traumatic stress disorder. You shouldn't have a war wound in the workplace," Namie said.

It's a war being fought across the country in all types of workplaces. An estimated 54 million people say they have been bullied at work, according to a 2007 survey by Zogby International.

While men tend to target male and female employees equally, women bosses are likely to aim their hostility toward other women more than 70 percent of the time, according to a survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute.

Workplace experts have different theories on why women more often target other women. Some say these women see female co-workers as possible competition for only a few top-level positions.

Namie said it's more important to get help, not try to analyze the tormenter's motives. The institute says more than 80 percent of those bullied lose their jobs, and 41 percent suffer clinical depression.

Recovering Bullies Confess

The Growth Leadership Center in California counsels women whose "tough" office demeanor amounted to aggression.

In a "bully broads" roundtable discussion, a group of women talked about their hostile workplace behavior.

"I actually made someone cry. I sort of went over the edge, and as I closed the door I thought, 'That was not me in there,'" said Christine Forter, one of the women in the roundtable.

"I knew I was a bully, but I thought I was justified. It is the perfection combined with the urgency that creates a lethal combination," said Christine King, another woman who took part in the discussion.

By attending counseling groups, some "bully broads" said, they hope they will be able to recognize how their negative behavior affects others and try to make changes in their management style.

"Like, you never say, 'That is stupid,' but you pause and say something like, 'That is an interesting idea, and let's talk about it,'" said Monica Palm, another group member.

But for people like Joan Frye who have been bullied, the debilitating effects of a hostile work environment may last forever.

"I feel like this took away my life as it was. It caused damage to my family; it caused damage to my reputation; it caused damage to us significantly financially," Frye said. "I feel like it was probably the worst thing that has happened to me in my entire life."

How to Fight Back

The Workplace Bullying Institute recommends these steps to deal with problems in the workplace.

Get support from family and friends. Talking about the problem eases the burden and lowers the chances of stress-related illness.

See a doctor or a therapist, especially if you're having stress symptoms, such as sleeplessness and appetite loss.

Get witnesses to help you build a record of the bully's actions for a future complaint.

Confront the bully with the same toughness he or she showed you. This should be done with a single witness or as a group.

File a complaint. It can be risky for your job, but if the previous steps didn't work, it's essential to establish a paper trail.

Make a case to remove the bully. You want to show your employer the costs of keeping the bully and of losing you.

Find out more at bullyinginstitute.org.

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