Choosing Our Words

By Sheree Winslow

The trouble often starts on the playground.

One day you’re playing four square with your friends and everything is cool and the next day you’ve been iced out because Angie decided she was mad at you.  She got Rachel and Melissa to stop talking to you, too.  You wander around the playground sad, maybe crying, trying to figure out what you have done.  Melissa tells you that Angie is mad because you were being “bossy.”  Eventually Angie decides she is going to put it behind her.  She’ll let it go this time.  And then the next thing you know, the conflict has passed.  But you’re hurt and confused, your confidence has been shaken, and you begin to second guess all your actions.  And before you can even process your feelings, everyone is mad at Melissa for bragging about some achievement.

I have a recollection from sixth grade that resembles the above scenario including the detail of being called “bossy.”  And all these years later, I can’t remember exactly what went down but I can remember how it felt to be isolated without really understanding what I had done wrong.  As women, we learn early how to keep one another in line.  Or maybe more accurately said, we learn how to undermine one another and hold down our collective confidence.

Since some of the details of how this socialization first occurred for me have eroded with passing years, I decided to do an interview with someone who I knew would have more recent memories.

Brittni is 10-years-old.  She has long wavy blonde hair that she likes to brush a lot.  She thinks Liam of One Direction is ahw-some and torments her family by playing the boy band’s music regularly.  She loves playing softball but even more than that she loves being on a softball team because of the camaraderie with her teammates.  This week, and possibly just for this week, Brittni wants to own a bakery where she can put her love of of both science and design into practice.  She has an idea for a unique cupcake and frosting combination—a mystery flavor that I cannot reveal.

“I’m gonna be the boss when I get older,” she said bringing a huge smile to my face.

Brittni is my niece and being her auntie gives me great joy.  On a recent Sunday before we engaged in a rousing game of Raving Rabbids competition on the Nintendo Wii, I asked her a few questions about how girls her age treat each other.  Dressed in her quilt print maxi dress she looked every part the young California girl she was, enhancing my surprise at the maturity and wisdom her answers offered.

Last year Brittni and her best friend became the target of the schoolyard mean girl.  Unlike the story of my experience that I described above, Brittni and some of her classmates were truly bullied.  (For the purpose of this post, I will simply refer to the bully as “Bully” and have changed the name of Brittni’s friend to “Molly”).

Sheree:  Do you remember any ways that Bully made fun of you?  What would she say?

Brittni:  I don’t really remember because I tried to forget and I did.

Sheree:  Do you know it happens at work?

Brittni:  No, I don’t.

Sheree:  What do you think about the fact that women do this at work?

Brittni:  I think it would make work a little harder.

Sheree:  What will you do when you are the boss and other employees make fun of each other?

Brittni:  Tell them to stop or they’re fired—but in a nice way.

Sheree:  How does it make you feel when someone makes fun of you?

Brittni:  It hurts a lot.

Sheree:  Has anyone ever made fun of you and they didn’t think you knew but you did?

Brittni:  Yes, because Molly told me that Bully was talking about me behind my back and she told her to stop but she wouldn’t.  And then she started bullying Molly, too.

Sheree:  Why do you think Bully does that?

Brittni:  Because her mom is really mean, too.  She’s taking after her mom.

This past week I joined a group for professional women on Linkedin sponsored by Citi and within the group page was the re-post of a article.  In “Why Women Are the Worst Kind of Bullies,” writer Ruchika Tulshyan also spotlights how our early childhood training as women can manifest itself in the workplace.  More than 200 people had commented in the group discussion at the time of this writing, many with stories of pain and suffering resulting from woman against woman abuse.

Whether women are bullying others or disparaging one another in a more benign way, these problems impact our ability to increase the number of women leaders.  Negative stereotypes of cat-fighting are perpetuated and women back away from the tables because of bruised confidence.

But we’re not 12-years-old anymore and we don’t have to tolerate this malaise.  Below I have listed seven remedies we can administer as needed to create healthier workplaces and relationships.

  1. “I tried to forget and I did.”  This was Brittni’s response when I asked her what exactly had occurred with her bully.  I acknowledge that this is sometimes easier said than done, but depending on your position and specific situation, the best approach may be to simply let go.  When someone makes personal attacks to undermine, she is exposing a flaw in her own character or behavior.  With this understanding, acknowledging our pain or anger and then putting it behind us may provide the most benefit to our own psyches and physical wellbeing.
  2. Report harassment or hostile workplace problems.  If the behavior goes beyond the inappropriate comment to being harassment or the behavior of the aggressor crosses the line into creation of a hostile work environment, it should be treated as such.  Refer to company policy and seek legal advice if someone’s unprofessional treatment of you or others is negatively impacting job performance.
  3. Call out the behavior.  If you observe others engaging in women vs. women sabotage, calling out the behavior and explaining why it’s inappropriate may be all that is needed to affect change.  We’ve all been hurt on the playground of life at some point and we need to raise awareness on this topic in order to adjust years of socialization.  In many cases women simply need a nudge in the right direction toward professional communication.
  4. Fight back!  This week Jennifer Livingston, the Wisconsin TV reporter criticized for her weight by a viewer, used her personal power to turn a negative situation into a positive example of confidence and strength.  She went on TV and confronted her attacker.  If you are the one being maligned and you have the power to take an offensive position, you model behavior that others can follow driving more positivity in the workplace overall.
  5. Own your responsibility.  If you are in a leadership role, addressing these types of attacks is not simply a matter of being a good role model—it’s about managing your organization’s bottom line and effectiveness.  Absenteeism, legal actions, and lowered worker productivity impact financial performance and hinder accomplishment of goals.  Additionally, poisonous attitudes spread and negatively reflect on your results.  Get rid of workplace toxins as soon as you can.
  6. If you don’t have anything nice to say….  The old adage that if we don’t have anything nice to say, we should say nothing at all deserves a place in our personal operating procedures.  Obviously, we have to evaluate performance and call attention to problems we observe at work.  We will at times need to engage in conflict and I am certainly not one to suggest we sugarcoat anything, as that is not my style.  But we need to think twice about the criticisms we release into the world and ensure we attack professional issues and behaviors, not individuals.
  7. Support a sister.  Finally, while we must counter negativity, a positive approach to one another will likely provide the greatest impact on getting more women to the tables.  Give your fellow female colleagues support and encouragement to help build their esteem.  Recognize their contributions and let them know they are appreciated.  Educate your teams or the young women in your life on the importance of supporting one another.  This is a suggestion we can all put into practice today creating the broadest influence.

Do you have stories or additional suggestions on how we can better support our fellow women?  Please share in the comments section so we can all learn from one another.