Busting the ‘Mean Girls at the Office’ Myth: Andie Kramer’s ‘It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace’

Like most women, I have long bought into the idea that women are horrible to each other at work. Even though that hadn’t personally been my experience (but for a few rare exceptions), I heard it often enough to believe it was true, albeit incredibly unfortunate.

Andie Kramer, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery and an expert on issues affecting women in the workplace, had heard the same thing and decided to learn more. The result is her forthcoming book, “It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace: Women’s Conflict at Work and the Bias that Built It,” which comes out in August. (I previously interviewed her in 2017 following her first book, “Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work.”)

I wanted to know more about her research, whether the conventional wisdom is right, and, if not, why it persists. Here’s our Q&A.

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What motivated you to write this second book?

After my husband, Al Harris, and I started speaking about our first book, “Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work,” women would come up to us and tell us that we are absolutely right about gender bias holding women back, but we are missing an important part of the picture: women working with women.

They would say they get along fine with the men they work with but have trouble working with other women. We’d long been aware of the extensive literature about “mean girls,” “queen bees,” and women’s competitiveness with each other but we’d always assumed that these were exaggerations.

With so many women telling us about their difficulties in working with other women, Al and I decided we needed to understand what was behind their experiences and understand why they found their workplace relationships with other women so problematic. The result is our new book, “It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace: Women’s Conflict at Work and the Bias That Built It.”

This sounds like a research-intensive project. Can you tell me a little bit about your research?

We conducted multiple surveys, undertook extensive study of the social science literature, and interviewed hundreds of women in a variety of industries and professions across the U.S.

How did you come to the conclusion that the “women hate other women” motif is a fallacy?

We found there is no empirical evidence that women have more intense or frequent conflicts in working with other women than men do in working with other men or that women and men do in working together. In addition, there is no empirical evidence that women are more mean-spirited, antagonistic or untrustworthy in dealing with women than men are in dealing with men. And, finally, we found considerable empirical evidence that women are far more supportive of other women—counseling, mentoring and advocating for other women—than men do for other men or for women.

If it’s BS, then why does it endure?

The enduring notion that women are mean to—or hostile or antagonistic or competitive with—other women, can be explained, in part, by the fact that women often hold other women to higher interpersonal behavioral standards than men do. This is also, in part, because women often care far more than men to achieve close, harmonious, and mutually supportive same-gender relationships. As a result, women tend to expect more from their workplace relationships with other women than they do from their workplace relationships with men. When women behave at work in exactly the same way that many men do—in a direct, all-business way—other women very often view them as cold, selfish, and unlikable, while they will view men behaving this way as acting entirely appropriately.

But female bosses need to get their projects done the same as male bosses do, and that often means that women do not have the time to show any interest in their female subordinates’ personal issues and struggles. Furthermore, in gendered workplaces, communal qualities are not valued and may even be seen as an indication of low leadership ability.

We address this asymmetry in detail in “It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace.” But, as might be evident from the title of our book, we have also found that this asymmetry is caused by the gendered nature of the majority of our workplaces; that is, because most of our workplaces are led and controlled by men, such gendered workplaces have a strong masculine culture with male norms, values, and expectations. This means that women are not dealt with, evaluated, and promoted on an equal, nondiscriminatory basis as men.

Gendered workplaces make it more difficult for women to have positive, supportive, and conflict-free workplace relationships with other women. And, these difficulties are intensified for women with distinctive social identities such as race, ethnicity, age, LGBTQ identification, and motherhood. Their distinctive social identities intersect with their gender.

There is a big difference between women having a direct, all-business-like manner and women actively working to undermine the career prospects of other women. A key part of “It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace” provides women with the tools needed to recognize the difference.

It sounds like your work can be discouraging, so tell me something encouraging you learned during your research.

What we learned in writing “It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace” is that those women who have positive workplace relationships with other women report having more efficient, productive, and satisfying careers. Working with other women in positive ways in good for women’s careers. We also found that workplace sisterhoods are alive and well. Women do, in fact, find ways to make their workplace relationships with other women rich and rewarding. Our findings are very encouraging.

Amy Boardman Hunt Muse CommunicationsAmy Boardman Hunt is the president of Muse Communications LLC, which provides content marketing and public relations to the legal profession. She began her career in legal journalism and has worked in legal marketing and public relations since 1997. She can be reached at amy.hunt@muselegalpr.com.


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