Researchers have coined several names for the storied ways in which women apparently treat each other in the workplace. The ‘queen bee’ syndrome, for example, was conceived to refer to a woman in a senior position who is a metaphorical sting for other women if her power is threatened. The ‘mean girl’ syndrome is another coinage which refers to women professionals who are so insecure and jealous of other women that they resort to gossip and bullying to establish their own superiority.
The original Shakespearean quote, “Frailty, thy name is woman!” is carried over to the workplace and translated through an unspoken assumption into “Jealousy, thy name is woman!” Is women’s jealousy in the workplace the norm or a rarity? Or is the concept itself a sexist invention? What does the research say?
Is women’s jealousy in the workplace the norm or a rarity? Or is the concept itself a sexist invention? What does the research say?
The subject of women’s jealousy is much-analysed.
Books and papers on queen bees and mean girls are rife (Crowley and Elster 2013; Derks 2011). One prevailing view comes from Chesler (2001), who says that women’s competition is directed mainly towards each other. And that they experience each other’s overt or covert competition as dangerous. “To a woman, other women (are supposed to be) Good Fairy Godmothers and if they are not, they may swiftly become their dreaded Evil Stepmothers”.
One recent European research study (Buunk 2011) claims that sexual competition generates jealousy in women. Intra-sexual competition is when persons of the same gender compete with each other for attention from the opposite sex. This reflects in women being jealous of other women who are physically more attractive.
Are Women Jealous?
On the other hand, there is mounting evidence that women who network, support, and encourage each other, do better in their careers. For example, a research study published in the Harvard Business Review reports that women who have a close inner circle of women friends are more likely to get executive positions and better pay (Uzzi 2019). And guess what? Although men benefit from networking as well, the gender composition of their inner circle does not affect their opportunity set.
Although men benefit from networking as well, the gender composition of their inner circle does not affect their opportunity set.
In a recent article in HBR Ascend, Shawn Achor reports results of a study with 2600 women from different levels of work experience to assess the effects of women networking conferences. His control group was women who registered for a conference but did not attend. In the period of study, 42% of women attendees reported a promotion after the conference. Only 18% women who did not attend the conference got a promotion. On all measures such as feeling connected, empowered and optimistic, women who attended the conference reported extremely high results.
The Jealousy Interviews
As can be seen, searching through published research yielded no conclusive evidence about the pervasiveness of women’s jealousy in the workplace. So, I decided to talk to working women of different age groups and different seniority levels. In India, the workforce is famously tilted against women with only about a quarter of working age women participating in the workplace. My informal interviews with 50 women, asking them all same questions, ended up showing some interesting patterns
I could split the responses into three different categories. The first were older women currently in senior leadership positions who started their work life when there were hardly any women in the workforce. They were rather surprised to hear the question. “Women’s jealousy in the workplace? No! This must be a myth created by men!” Their reaction can be summarised as:
Let’s face it. Men and women are both competitive in their workplace, but women possibly express it differently. Women are expressive on average and when they express their competitiveness, it is considered gossip and immediately looked upon as a feminine trait. Men are manipulative in their own ways.
These women also described how fortunate they were in finding great women mentors and guides – not in their workplace, but outside. These women themselves did not report feeling jealous of other women. In fact, one leader made an interesting point: if a woman uses her attractiveness to get ahead, she would face a lot more criticism by other women and other men. A man will not face such intense scrutiny if his looks happen to benefit him professionally.
The second group comprised of mid-level and young professional women who find themselves working alongside other women and also have had experiences with a female boss. They acknowledged the existence of jealousy amongst female employees, which is not always overt and sometimes expressed in the form of stonewalling or gossip. This group had learned that such behaviour was counterproductive, and that it was much better to support each other.
A bigger issue than jealousy for this demographic was the lack of respect for their work even when it was of the same quality as their male colleagues. Even when they got chosen for a promotion, the colleagues assumed it was because of their ‘diversity card’ of being a woman.
A bigger issue than jealousy for this demographic was the lack of respect for their work even when it was of the same quality as their male colleagues. Even when they got chosen for a promotion, the colleagues assumed it was because of their ‘diversity card’ of being a woman. Although not all of them had families or had to juggle work, they were acutely aware of such struggles that senior women faced. These women also acknowledged that when they made attempts at making friends with a senior woman leader, it worked well for them. It was important to build on the empathetic relationship stemming from common women’s issues.
The third category was of young women who were working with many other women and had explicitly experienced jealousy and gossip from co-workers or had heard about it second-hand. They felt that women compete with each other more than men do. They also described the angst of women who were considered ‘attractive’ and who, according to them, received a bigger brunt of the gossip and disrespect. But they believed that having other women friends at work made a big difference in the way they dealt with such situations.
Is Jealousy for Women Only?
Two common themes emerged both from the published research and interviews:
First, the existence of workplace jealousy amongst women is not universally established. But gender stereotyping does seem to play a role in the way jealousy is perceived and the way women are treated at work. Nicolson (1996) argues that the cost to women for expressing unfeminine behaviour may be high because they have to cope with a dual assessment, both as professional women in competition with men and as female professionals. As the latter, they have to be better than men professionally and better than women both socially and professionally. This creates a dilemma.
Second, women clearly benefit more from having their own inner circles and by networking with each other (Uzzi 2019) rather than from competing and distancing from each other
Second, women clearly benefit more from having their own inner circles and by networking with each other (Uzzi 2019) rather than from competing and distancing from each other. This may be a sign of the changing nature of today’s workplace in which there are more women with high ambition but traditional expectations from the environment still prevail. As one woman said to me, “I love having a woman boss. We share some of the same concerns around kids and family responsibility. We understand each other better! We get a lot more done with ease.”
If working women’s so-called jealousy might either be an expression of competitiveness or more likely, a perception fuelled by bias, does it hide deeper problems facing women at work? I turned next to the question of coping.
Coping with Jealousy (for Men and Women)
How does one deal with counterproductive jealousy (regardless of gender) at the workplace? How does one create a sense of much-needed camaraderie? Tanya Menon, who taught at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business and Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management’s Professor Leigh Thompson’s April 2010 HBR article describes a strategy to successfully turn envy into a positive force. The authors recommend using principles from positive psychology and the Buddhist principle of Mudita, which is also the Pali word for practising sympathetic joy. Positive psychology suggests using self-affirmation to combat negative feelings. Mudita practice suggests rejoicing in other people’s good fortune in a deliberate way because you must know that your time will come too.
Menon and Thomson did a simple experiment. They asked participants to evaluate their rival’s latest idea. Before the task, half of the participants were asked to list their own strength and successes and half of them were not. Participants who had affirmed themselves first were willing to devote 60% more time to evaluating and understanding the rival’s idea as opposed to the ones who did not affirm themselves. Instead of distancing themselves from the rival and missing out on opportunities, participants found that it was more productive to appreciate rival ideas and learn from them.
So, the next time you experience pangs of jealousy towards a person, try these three steps vouched for by Sharon Salzberg, the author of Real Happiness at Work:
First, be mindful of your jealousy and why it is so hard for you.
Second, turn your attention to your own positive traits and affirm yourself by listing your accomplishments and good fortune.
Finally, contemplate sympathetic joy for the rival or practice meditation on sympathetic joy.
Envy can be turned into a force for good!