Woman-on-woman aggression really freaks people out.
“I don’t know why I’m being such a coward about this,” I mused to my mom over Skype. “I think it must be my own internalized chauvinism or something. I’ll usually fight with anyone. As long as it’s a man.”
The subject of my agonizing was a collaboration on a potential publication proposed by a (female) colleague. Though initially enthusiastic about the idea, I soon learned that everything from the project budget to output to timing were still mired in the earliest back-of-the-envelope stage, making the financial and time commitments on my part seem increasingly amorphous and the prospects for meaningful creative control quite slim.
As messages from my colleague continued to pile up, I realized with rising panic that I’d have to extricate myself. But the prospect of explaining my issues to my collaborator, a friend whom I both respected and hated the idea of disappointing, left me almost literally quaking.
I consulted with my former managing editor, now closest male friend, who has a no-nonsense attitude and a good head for business to boot (and whom I’ve openly locked horns with in editorial meetings more times than I can count): “How do I say no to this without causing conflict?”
“What is with you, Sam?” he wrote back incredulously. “I can’t understand why this is so difficult. Just say no, and even if it causes conflict it’s not going to kill you.”
He was right. The conversation where I finally explained my reservations to my collaborator and stepped away from the project didn’t kill me. It just left me with flaming red cheeks, heart palpitations, and a rock in my stomach.
But it didn’t kill me.
“I’m good at three things: fighting, screwing, and reading the news,” shouts my career idol Veronica Corningstone at her boss on the KVWN news floor in Anchorman. “Now I’ve already done one those things today, so what’s the other one gonna be, huh?”
Things have changed a lot for working women since the ’70s-era open sexism that Christina Applegate’s character shouted down alongside Will Ferrell in Adam McKay’s brilliant feminist comedy Anchorman. But they haven’t changed so much that audiences these days would laugh out loud to see a woman like Veronica Corningstone shouting the same lines at her female boss in front of all her co-workers. In fact, the audience would likely be cringing or averting their gazes in agony.
A 2013 study at the University of British Columbia confirms this, documenting how open woman-on-woman aggression continues to really freak people out. The researchers asked 152 people to predict the effect of identical workplace conflicts between a pair of managers (man-and-man, man-and-woman, and woman-and-woman) on the relationship between the two managers and on team and workplace morale overall. All respondents, both men and women, consistently viewed female-on-female conflict as most negative and most destructive.
The researchers in the study hypothesized that the severe discomfort with female-on-female aggression stems from cultural gender roles. “Conflicts between women violate our norms of what is prescribed for women,” one of the authors said in the Wall Street Journal. “We have this perception that women can be really catty and terrible to each other, but we don’t think women should be that way. We want to see women supporting one another, because they are a marginalized group.”
Their cultural explanation is plausible, but offers little hope for changing this double standard if conformity to those gender norms is seen as a foregone conclusion. But another perspective from game theory (a favorite system amongst social science geeks everywhere for analyzing decision-making) highlights the social calculations behind interpersonal conflict: People are, in general, more likely to choose to engage in direct conflict with anyone, male or female, when they believe the strategic payoff (a raise, for instance, or a greater amount of creative control in a project) outweighs the potential consequences of the conflict.
Throughout history and across most groups, women have occupied a structurally lower position in most public, social, and economic hierarchies, and thus the payoffs for directly fighting with women, for both men and other women, tended to be too low to offset the social disruptiveness of the conflict.
Luckily, the gender composition of workforce hierarchies is more varied than ever before, and people’s calculations for engaging in conflict are likely to slowly shift in tandem. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that in 2010, women held 51.5% of management, professional, and related occupations. This means that workers are increasingly likely to report directly to a female superior. Women’s increasing clout in the U.S. economy means that they control influence that should over time (somewhat perversely) increase the payoff for openly fighting with them. The cultural aversion to metaphorically “duking it out” with women should, in turn, slowly dissipate.
Cases like the firing of “pushy” top dog Jill Abramson at the New York Times this May show that this aversion to open female aggression still can have career-ending consequences for women in the workplace. Everyone knows about the catch-22 faced by women in leadership—you have to lead to be a leader, but are sure to face pushback or even outright mutiny if you’re seen as too “bossy” or assertive.
But the continued need for women (and men) to get more comfortable with open female hostility is obvious in, for instance, the recent political collapses of promising candidates Wendy Davis and Alison Lundergan-Grimes in the U.S. elections earlier this month, due in large part to both women’s panic and strategic waffling in the face of the inevitable aggressions of the campaign trail. Female leaders rely just as much as their male counterparts on feedback, criticism, and group infighting to help refine their leadership mettle. But our society’s reluctance to see women openly slug it out deprives ambitious women like Davis and Lundergran-Grimes of an excruciating but necessary crucible for learning how to respond to conflict with steely steadiness rather than defensiveness and waffling.
So—you say—as a progressive-minded woman or man, how can I help change this entrenched double standard? Well, perverse as it sounds, next time your female colleague or boss does something you disagree with, perhaps you should grit your teeth and call her out on it. (As politely as possible, please.)
It might well leave you, her, and your co-workers with flaming red cheeks, heart palpitations, and rocks in your stomachs.
But it’s certainly not going to kill you.
Samantha Eyler is a freelance American writer, editor, and translator based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.