Mean Girls in the Office

Women at work in conflict.

Posted Mar 06, 2014

I’ve been listening to a lot of professional women tell me how they see themselves and other women in their workplaces. While they often appreciate each other and get and offer support from their work friends and colleagues, their interactions with a few Mean Girls in the office can make for a long day.  

And it’s not just the typical office environment where women find conflict with each other. Stories from the world of women’s professional tennis suggest not all of the ladies get along together.  “What can I say,” admits Russian player Nadia Petrova, “Girls are girls. We always find something to fuss about.” (1)  Reasons for this animosity, say Tour followers, stem from the constant media attention, the player’s frequent use of social media to criticize each other, and the younger ages of female tennis stars, as opposed to their older male counterparts. 

Whatever the reasons, what happens in professional tennis locker rooms is not uncommon in the office environment either.  ne of my female clients, who works in a government office, tells me, “We get along with the men in the offices. With a few exceptions with some idiot guys, it’s mostly about business and getting the work done. We don’t always get along so well with the women in our offices, because for a lot of them, it’s more about catty stuff, hurt feelings, hidden agendas, and long memories and grudges over small, stupid things that happened.”

To be sure, men and women working together still have a lot of significant obstacles to surmount, including pay disparities, promotional barriers, and overt or covert sexual harassment. To say that women have it harder than men when it comes to making it to the C-level in our organizations understates it. According to, women hold 4.6 percent of CEO positions in both the Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 lists. (Academics and others who study this sad lack of female involvement at the highest levels in an organization point to a critical fact: Most CEOs come from backgrounds in finance or technology, two areas where women are not as prevalent.)

Many women I’ve asked tell me males are often less emotional about workplace decisions than females. “Men get over it,” says one woman who has worked for the same organization for 26 years. “You can disagree with one of your male colleagues about something important and they move on.  They let it go. A lot of women file it away for later.” She says given her choice, she would usually rather work for a male boss than a female one. “There are some exceptions, of course. I’ve had some lousy bosses who were men too. But a lot of the female supervisors I’ve worked for over the years seemed to be trying too hard. What they think is ‘being hands-on,’ everyone else sees as micro-managing. They are often too emotional about their decisions and think that when people have other views they are challenging their authority.”

Female leaders at every level in an organization find themselves walking a behavioral tight rope not required of their male counterparts. “If you’re a male manager,” says one of my female friends, who is a boss, “and you’re assertive and demand high-performance from your team, then you’re called a good leader and you’re rewarded. If you do the exact same as a female manager, they give you the Bitch Label.” So how can women succeed as managers of both male and female employees? Turn into a robot? Be passive and unassuming? Wear the “Bitch Label” with pride? Tough it out until the organizational climate changes? Not necessarily. Successful female executives, managers, and supervisors know how to manage their emotions, balance being assertive with being empathic, and change their communication approach by focusing on the words they choose. 

Consider the use of language to illustrate gender differences at work. A male manager will say to one of his employees, “Please get this done and get it back to me by 10 tomorrow.” A female manager might say to one of her employees, “Could you please get this done and get it back to me by 10 tomorrow?” Note the use of “qualifying language” in her request. For the male manager, it’s more of an order, a command; for the female manager, it seems like more of a request. Eliminating these qualifiers may help change the perception of her male and female employees about her leadership style.

Think about how appearance plays such a part in assumptions, acceptance, and the re-creation of the usual stereotypes at work. If a woman takes a position as an administrative assistant, clerical employee, secretary, or receptionist, and she dresses provocatively (low-cut tops, short skirts, Saturday-night-at-the-club shoes, etc.) on a daily basis, in defiance of the office dress code or culture, what is the reaction from her co-workers? Some men may hang around to try and flirt, some men may roll their eyes and keep moving, and most men will ignore it and keep their focus on business. “But for some of the women in the office,” says one of my female friends who works in healthcare, “out come the claws. We start calling her ‘hoochie mama’ or ‘that bitch’ behind her back, or make assumptions that she’s trying to sleep her way to a promotion.”

Angie Dickinson is best known for her blonde bombshell persona and being the star of the 1970s TV drama, “Police Woman.” The show was one of the first featuring a female lead in a primetime drama. She once said, “I dress for women. I undress for men.” Women who dress outside the formal or informal dress codes can find themselves ostracized by their female counterparts, and not know why. Perhaps their choice of clothing is intentional or unintentional; the results can be the same.  They are labeled, shunned, and dismissed by their female colleagues. If this is true, and many women tell me it is, shouldn’t a forward-thinking female supervisor, female HR employee, or more experienced female co-worker take this woman aside and explain the benefits of dressing more appropriately? A female colleague who works in marketing asks me, “Why don’t women do this for each other?” already knowing the answer is complex.

Appearance plays a big part in female office politics, another female friend tells me. “I worked in an office where the really cute, skinny young girls called us older, heavier women, ‘Shreks,’ like from the movie. They had numbers for us, like, ’I’m going to a meeting with Shrek 2’ or ‘Give this to Shrek 5.’ It was all very funny to them until we found out about it. Then the silent treatment began.”

Can we agree that both genders in the workplace could benefit from more outcome-based communications (what’s right versus who’s right), less scorekeeping, and not holding grudges? Can female co-workers agree that being judgmental, using passive-aggressive behaviors, or gossiping about other women is counter-productive to their success? And can we agree that males and females at work would all benefit from more support, more patience with each other, and more social intelligence? The battle for civil treatment at work, between the genders and with them, continues. 

(1). Robson, Douglas. (2014, January 20). No love lost among women tennis players.” USA Today, p. C-1.  

Dr. Steve Albrecht, PHR, CPP, BCC, is a San Diego-based speaker, author, and trainer.  He is board certified in HR, security, and coaching.  He focuses on high-risk employee issues, threat assessments, and school and workplace violence prevention.  In 1994, he co-wrote Ticking Bombs, one of the first business books on workplace violence.  He holds a doctorate in Business Administration (DBA); an M.A. in Security Management; a B.S. in Psychology; and a B.A. in English.  He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years and has written 15 books on business, HR, and police subjects.  He can be reached at or on Twitter @DrSteveAlbrecht