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Joan C. Williams's picture

Co-written by Katherine Ullman.

An essay this month in The Wall Street Journal recycled a tired trope: “queen bees” in the office are making the lives of other women a living hell.

We’ve heard this before. Powerful women are just grown up high-school “mean girls” chipping away at the self-confidence of the women who work with and for them.

Suggesting that these women are at once “encircling” their prey and protecting their “perches,” author Peggy Drexler paints two incompatible pictures of the infamous “queen bees.” In one, queen bees cause the workplace to be unfriendly to women, by using surreptitious childish tactics to keep women down. In the other, these women’s bad behavior results from workplaces shaped by gender bias.

Those are two very different pictures, and we politely ask that she stick with one.

Drexler uses a few chilling anecdotes, and some shocking statistics, to suggest that an epidemic of women-on-women hostility is taking over the workplace. Citing one 2010 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute, Drexler highlights the fact that female bullies directed their hostilities to women 80% of the time. Shocking indeed, but somewhat misleading; while the 80% figure is accurate, the same study found that male-male bullying was more common than female-female cases, that women are more likely to be targets of bullying, and that men are more likely to be perpetrators. It is true that women are more likely than men to choose same-sex targets, but this is hardly surprising. Bullies target the vulnerable, and for bullies who are women, it’s just plumb safer to target other women than it is to go after men.

Drexler cites another 2011 survey of 1,000 working women, which found that 95% of them believed they were undermined by another woman. Sure, but how many men believe they have been undermined by men? That number, had she used it, would not have been cited as evidence that men are mean people stuck in immature, high-school-type roles. (Tellingly, the study never asked about men.) In fact, a new study finds that, while we tend to overlook workplace conflict among men or between men and women, we are more likely to be concerned about workplace conflict among women.

The study, by Leah D. Sheppard and Karl Aquino, asked participants to react to one of three stories of workplace conflict, which differed only in the names, and gender, of the characters involved. They found that both men and women believed female-female conflict had more negative implications for the characters than other forms of conflict. Specifically, participants believed that women involved in female-female conflict were less capable of putting differences aside to achieve common goals than were women in mixed-sex conflict and men in same-sex conflict.

And then there’s the Marissa Mayer issue. Does every woman have a duty to place helping other women as one of her key career goals? Men don’t. We admire women who help other women—thank you Sheryl Sandberg —but we can’t expect all women leaders to do so. In a workplace plagued with unfair hurdles for women, it’s not fair to insist that every woman fights this battle.

What Drexler suggests casually we will argue explicitly: gender bias against women creates conflict among women. (We at The New Girls’ Network call this the Tug of War).

Unlike Drexler’s “mean girls” hypothesis, this interpretation is backed by social science. One studyby Derks et al. found that when senior policewomen who had low gender identification (who did not identify strongly with their gender and other members of their gender) were reminded of instances of gender bias in their careers, they were more likely to elicit “queen bee behavior,” like emphasizing how much they differed from female colleagues. When these women were not reminded of past experiences of gender bias, their responses did not differ significantly from those of high-gender identifying women and showed less “queen bee behavior.” A second study by Derks et al. found that women who had low gender-identification at the beginning of their careers and experience a high degree of gender discrimination on their way to the top were the most hostile in their perceptions of other women.

When social science research indicates that gender bias in the environment creates conflicts among women, it is irresponsible to then blame women for creating unfriendly work environments for other women. Hear ye, hear ye, Wall Street Journal. Stories like this are not fit to print.

Of course, not all conflicts between women can be chocked up to gender bias. Some women are jerks. Some men are jerks. That’s just part of the human condition.

With that in mind, here are our two take-aways: (1) if you want to talk about female-on-female conflict, understand that often gender bias in the environment is to blame; and (2) if you want to talk about prevalent forms of workplace conflict, check your biases—and your research.

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