Mean girls at work

July 2, 2013

“The idea of the Women’s Movement makes sense in theory...'let’s all bind together'...the’s beautiful. The problem is we bound together to enter a male workplace - a place that was created by men for men.”

- Michelle Villalobos

Several months ago this piece by Peggy Drexler on 'queen bee syndrome' came out in the Wall Street Journal. I then wrote a post acknowledging that all was not perfect in the office, but ultimately defending female bosses and naming a couple of great ones of my own. After it went up I got a long email from a listener to the podcast who had read it. Sure, she said, there may be some good female bosses out there, but every experience she'd had with a woman boss was awful - she was undermined, sneered at, and bullied, to the extent that she actually left that profession (academia) and started anew elsewhere. I decided then that at some point I'd have to address what seems like a politically incorrect topic in these days of supportive 'Lean In circles', but that, secretly, most women know to be true: women can be absolutely horrible to other women at work.

Miami businesswoman Michelle Villalobos knows this all too well. I first spoke to Michelle for a public radio story two years ago and have kept up with her online. Recently, she published a short e-book called The Stiletto in Your Back - The Good Girl's Guide to Backstabbers, Bullies, Gossips and Queen Bees at Work. She went into WLRN's Miami studios last week to talk to me about all this. The WLRN version of the story will air tonight (July 2) at 5.50p.m. and the longer, podcast version of our interview will be released next week.

Michelle has had some hellish experiences herself, but I must say they make excellent listening. There was the fashion magazine she ended up fleeing to protect herself from further backstabbing, and more recently the group business venture where one woman gradually and skillfully managed to turn all the other women against eachother and eject them one by one...Michelle was the last to go, but only woke up to these machinations just before the axe fell.

She's done a lot of research into the origins of female aggression, which I found fascinating. In short, it all goes back to the savannah - millions of years ago women couldn't be openly aggressive like men, because losing their lives in a fight put their children at too much risk. So women evolved to compete and mete out their aggression in underhanded ways, at which we still excel. 

She has advice about how to cope if you're the victim of an office bully or of unpleasant office gossip - and she strongly advises women not to share too much information about their private lives with other women at work. She says over-sharing is a huge source of workplace misery for women once a relationship sours. She also advocates calling a bully out on her behavior, but only once you are well armed with information. She concedes that in some cases the only answer may be to leave that workplace and find another, friendlier one instead - which, admittedly, may not be as easy to do as it was before 2009.

Tune into WLRN's live stream tonight at 5.50p.m. or to the podcast, which will be packed with more information - it'll be released after the holiday weekend (or you could do both - in fact, why not?)