Skip to main content

Woman-on-Woman Cruelty Is Real, But Evidence Suggests Things Are Looking Up

We don't have to live in a "Mean Girls" world.

From Verily's Nov/Dec 2013 PRINT issue:


Consider the story of Kelly Valen. When Valen, author of The Twisted Sisterhood, was in college twenty years ago, she had a terrible experience in her sorority that has, to this day, crippled her ability to develop close relationships with other women.

Soon after joining the sorority, Valen and her sisters were invited to a fraternity dance. After an evening of heavy drinking, the night took a nasty turn. Valen passed out in her date’s room, and he took advantage of her—publicly. Valen’s deeply personal wound became fodder for Greek-life gossip.

At this low point in her life, one would hope that Valen’s sorority sisters stood by her side, protected her from hurtful comments, and comforted her through the aftermath of being date-raped. Au contraire. In the weeks ­following the incident, Valen was, metaphorically speaking, scarlet-lettered. ­“After the momentum of my condemnation built to a crescendo,” she explained in a 2007 piece for the New York Times, her sorority sisters confronted her “directly, en masse, like a torch-wielding mob. Branding the ­incident my fault, they said I deserved my fate and further complained that I had brought shame upon them all.”

In time, her sisters found reasons to place her on probation and eventually expelled her altogether from the ­sorority. Forced to move out of their sorority house and expunged from the sisterhood, Valen has carried that experience with her ever since:

In the two decades since, I’ve been a full-time lawyer, a working mother, and a stay-at-home mother. In each role, I’ve found my fears about women’s covert competition and aggression to be frequently validated: the gossip, the comparisons, the withering critiques of career and mothering choices. We women swim in shark-infested waters of our own design. Often we don’t have a clue where we stand with one another—socially, as mothers, as colleagues—because we’re at once allies and foes.

Valen’s experience was profoundly scarring—and, I hope, more extreme than what most women experience. Yet most women today could probably tell some variation on her story. Whether ­narrated by the perpetrator or by the victim, stories of woman-on-woman cruelty are familiar to any female today. The motif is such a cultural commonplace that it drives the plots of popular movies and television shows such as Mean Girls, ­Gossip Girl, The Devil Wears Prada, The Hills, and Real Housewives—billed as ­“Drama, Drama, Drama.”

From Mean Girls to Queen Bees

This cruelty—the judging, the sneering, the gossip, the cattiness—seems to be bred into the female psyche. Cultural critic Camille Paglia attributes what she calls the “Mean Girls pheno­menon” to evolution. It is a form of ­“maneuvering,” she tells me, “to land the most high-­status male.” Gavin Kilduff, an expert on rivalry at NYU’s Stern School of Business, also suggests that mate-­seeking lies at the heart of same-sex ­competition; men and women just compete in different ways. “Men are more likely to report having rivals in athletic domains,” while “women are more likely to report having rivals in the domains of dating and ­appearance.”

So, while the crises of reality shows like Real Housewives might be manufactured, the behavior itself is real. Paglia adores such shows for revealing this part of the female nature in all of its starkness. These shows, she says, “are like anthropological studies to me—like TV documentaries showing lions stalking gazelles on the savanna.”

You don’t have to practice the lifestyle of these housewives to know what Paglia means. The Mean Girls phenomenon starts early on the playground, stays with us through college, and is a fixture of the workplace, giving rise to what the Cornell-­based organizational psychologist Peggy Drexler called in a 2013 essay for the Wall Street Journal “the tyranny of the queen bee.”

Yes, Queen Bee Syndrome is real. In the 1970s, when researchers at the University of Michigan set out to see how the women’s movement would impact the office, they found that women were not exactly going out of their way to help their sisters. Reviewing more than 20,000 responses in their surveys, the researchers found that women who fought their way to the top of their professions in male-­dominated work environments, breaking glass ceilings on the way, were ultimately less ­likely to help other women rise to the top. These queen bees had secured authority and power and didn’t want to share them with others of their kind. Success was seen as a zero-sum game.

Michelle Duguid at Washington University in St. Louis has encountered similar findings from a number of studies carried out in recent years: Women in high-status work positions are not willing to advocate for other women. Why? They see these women as threats.

When I asked Alison Fragale, an expert on leadership and negotiation at the University of North Carolina’s business school about this, she pointed to some research showing that “high-power people who feel insecure or incompetent are more likely to aggress on others. If a woman climbs the corporate ladder, but still feels insecure (‘Am I really qualified for this position?’ ‘Do others respect me, or just think I got the job because I’m a woman?’ et cetera), this may lead her to act aggressively toward others.”

Even worse, some women outright undermine their peers. The American Management Association surveyed 1,000 women in 2011 and found that nearly all of them—95 percent—felt that they had been undermined by another woman. Some people might say that men are just as likely to undermine each other as women are, but the research on workplace bullying does not bear this claim out.

A 2007 survey of the Employment Law Alliance found that 45 percent of respondents had been bullied at work. When you look more closely at who is doing the bullying and who is being bullied, you see that women bullies target other women. Although most of the bullies—60 percent—are men, these male bullies target other men and women relatively equally. Women bullies, by contrast, direct their aggression at other women 80 percent of the time, according to a 2010 report of the Workplace Bullying Institute.

The experience of being undermined leads to more stress, which impacts productivity and health. A 2008 study from the University of Toronto found that women with female bosses experienced
more stress and physical problems than women who worked for men.

Playing Nice

So that’s the bad news. Women can be mean.

The good news is that the days of the queen bee may be coming to an end. A few new studies suggest that some ­women are taking their stingers out. A 2012 report of the women-in-business group Catalyst found that women are outpacing men in developing up-and-comers. The researchers write, “Not only did we find that high-potential women are actively developing others, we found that, compared to men, they were more likely to be developing women.” The mentees, in turn, wanted to pay it forward and ­develop ­other women themselves. Sixty-five percent of women who had mentors were taking on mentors of their own, while only 56 percent of men were doing so.

The change correlates, perhaps, with women’s growing sense of their own security in the workplace. But whatever the cause, once women decide to support other women, they’re good at it. According to a study by Harvard and Carnegie Mellon researchers, female executives are better at negotiating on behalf of someone they have mentored than male executives are. In the same study, the male and female executives fared equally well in negotiating com­pen­­sation for themselves—suggesting that women will work hard in a tough situation to benefit someone they know.

At the same time, men seem to be better than women at large-scale cooperation—a point that Paglia made to much controversy in her book Sexual Personae. “If civilization had been left in female hands,” she wrote, “we would still be living in grass huts.” The social psychologist Roy Baumeister, author of Is There Anything Good About Men?, clarified Paglia’s polemical point for me: “Men who barely know each other (even some who dislike each other) have managed at many times to develop working relationships where they cooperate, trade, do other things for mutual benefit. One just doesn’t see that sort of thing among women.”

What we do see among women is that they put a stronger premium on forming intimate relationships than men do, a pattern that seems to emerge early on. As Paglia told me, “Studies have shown that, cutting across cultures, boys tend to form boisterous play groups where they taunt and insult each other and compete for status, sometimes through risky, ­injurious behavior (think Jackass),” while girls “form ‘pair bonds,’ making ‘best friends’ to whom they quietly tell secrets.”

Even the way in which men and women respond to stress bears this difference out. In the face of adversity, men revert to the primal fight-or-flight response. ­Women, by contrast, “tend and befriend”—that is, they capitalize on their relationships, reaching out to bond with others and relying on their communities and social networks during times of stress. ­Women are also better at responding to and interpreting social cues—like a suggestive touch—than men are, which may explain why women also tend to be more compassionate and empathetic than men.

Paradoxically, these very qualities that can make women such good mentors might also explain where the “mean girls” tendency comes from. “Women are more attuned [than men] to their environment and relationships,” Fragale explained to me. They are more interdependent, while men are more independent. “When a man is competitive, it’s possible that another man (who is focused on himself) may not even notice. But when a ­woman competes, other women notice”—­because women are always scanning their ­environment for relationship cues. ­Women may then reciprocate the competitive behavior, which can start a competitive arms race. Once this competition has been initiated, the tendency to form loyal pair bonds and to rely on ­community can exacerbate the tension.

I began with a sorority story; I’ll end with one too.

I was in a sorority in college, and it was a great experience. I joined for the same reasons I assume Valen did. I was looking for new friends and a strong, supportive sisterhood. But unlike Valen, I was lucky to find those things at my Tri Delt chapter, where I was one of the vice presidents my senior year. Our weekly activities included hosting talks led by professors, doing philanthropy and ­fundraising, having weekly meetings, and—on a more impromptu basis—baking cookies and cupcakes.

The best part of my entire experience at Tri Delt was a weekly ritual called “Recs,” where we’d recognize the good that our sisters were doing in the community. Recs, which happened during our weekly meetings, worked like this: Sisters would call each other out for their accomplishments, and the ones who were called out would receive chocolate or cookies. I was called out once for an editorial I had written for a campus ­newspaper; a friend was called out for breaking her personal record at her track event; others were called out for finishing their theses or landing awesome jobs. Our sisters’ successes did not threaten us—rather, their good news was our good news.

To this day, most of my closest friends are from my sorority. We talk about our careers. We attend each other’s weddings. And, as life takes us each in different directions, we continue to celebrate each other’s successes.

Some of us have been lucky and experienced the best qualities of women; some have been unlucky and experienced the worst. It really could go either way. Studies showing an increase in solidarity among women are certainly encouraging. But ultimately it depends on of us—on whether we, as ­women, choose to cut each other down or lift each other up.