Women Bullies Often Target Other Women

Women bosses are more likely to bully other women. Can you stop a bully at work?

ByABC News via logo
February 23, 2009, 8:47 PM

Feb. 24, 2009 — -- 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.

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.

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.