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  • Jessica Taylor Yates

The Rise and Rise of the Mean Girl

Updated: Jun 5, 2021

When you're a woman being bullied by another woman.

'Mean Girls' Romy, Alisha and Cat received significant media attention during their time on The Bachelor Australia. Image: Network 10

The internet and magazines alike have been flooded in the last few years with stories that invoke outrage in other women around the #metoo movement. These stories have rallied women together, bounded by common obstacles to fight for equality and men who shut us down in the workplace, the street and the club.  

But what about the other people who hurt women? 

I’m talking about the issue that still, in the 21st century, hasn’t gone away. It’s one of the reasons women are held back in the workplace, in education, socially and relationships.  

It is women who bully other women.  

While in the age of #metoo, every woman has the unfortunate experience of a story they can share, there are many who also have fallen victim to the rise of the mean girl. And it’s confusing because media is telling us to love each other, support each other, lift each other up and lean in – but still, we can be met by resistance by the very sex who we thought would help us in these changing times.  

Trixie*, 28, recalls a former job she had as a Marketing Assistant. Excited to work for strong women who headed the department, she went at it with gusto, doing extra shifts, hours, and asking to take on more projects. However, in meetings, she was ridiculed by her female manager – when Trixie made suggestions, she would roll her eyes, belittle her in front of other employees, tell her she was not ‘important enough’ to attend certain events, and culminated when the CEO told Trixie they don’t need her as ‘a monkey could do your job’.  

With friends like these, who needs enemies?  

I have had my own unfortunate experience in the workplace. Excited to be working for a female manager, I expected to learn, laugh and enjoy my job. Thinking it would be a career stepping stone, I took a significant pay cut for even longer hours, hoping I would climb up from within. However, I was blocked at every turn by my manager, who would let the hour decide whether she was my friend or foe. Dragged into private rooms daily to talk about what a ‘disappointment’ I was, heaving sighs or gobsmacked looks when I asked a question or answers of ‘Really? You work in this field and you don’t know that? Seriously?’, silent treatment, belittling, told ideas were ‘stupid’ in all caps emails when sitting right next to me, and the worst, lying to me about what colleagues and management thought of me in order to break me down, leaving me to run out of the building in tears and too upset to return. At first, I couldn’t quite believe it, and did what has become common – I blamed myself. If only I knew more, said it another way, stayed that extra hour unpaid. But it grinded. I found myself filled with dread on a Sunday and crying on a Monday morning when I woke up. I couldn’t switch off and began to loathe my workplace and the menial tasks I felt I was purposely given. I was trying to lean in, and instead, I felt shut out by a woman who I thought was there to raise me up and support me. It almost feels worse than if a man did it – aren’t you supposed to be an ally?  

I will add that of course, this is not ALL women (sing it, Annie!) The best manager I ever had was a female, who was as friendly as she was assertive, direct, engaging, fair and fun. And I would hope as time goes on, she is the type of manager I would like to emulate in my own career. But the fact is, in other cases, it is happening.  

Some may say there are cases for bullying, harassment and HR Teams, and in serious cases of course this should be a port of call. However, it isn’t always that simple. In my case, it was just two of us working together. The relationship was broken beyond repair, and no ‘mediation’ session could fix a senior woman in management telling me ‘everyone finds in really embarrassing and uncomfortable when you give your opinion in social settings’. As women also know, gas lighting and making a person feel insecure can be incredibly difficult to report, as I found when I looked into it further and further. And unfortunately, it is a situation where, just like #metoo, everyone seems to have a story. From full-blown aggressive behaviour to the hidden nuances of genius passive aggressive gas lighting, to women who like to cut down other women. So, why is it happening? In an age of equality and resilience, body positivity and united-ness, why do women keep shutting other women down? 

Psychologist Meredith Fuller, author of Working With Mean Girls, says there can be a multitude of reasons woman aren’t nice to other women. It can relate back to being young, when women weren’t taught how to be as assertive, and so instead it has grown into adult haughtiness, and perhaps they do not even know that inadvertently they are hurting another person.

It could be someone who has unhappiness in their own life, and lets it out on you, particularly in the workplace where a manager or colleague may be jealous of your abilities, slowly peeling you back to the brink of break down.

It could be simply that the woman does not understand or have the patience to teach somebody else. Guiltily, I do have friends who have expressed this type of exasperated behaviour to me about how they treat their own female colleagues, and it isn’t all chocolates and roses. Maybe I've done it and don't even know.

It also could be women who are trying so hard to prove themselves as accomplished or ‘right’ for the job, they go overboard in their leadership in an attempt to be found to have leader-like qualities. Fuller knows this issue all too well. ‘It creates a bit of a time bomb…you are still not sure if it's really happening, or if you're imagining it. As time goes on, you start to feel lower in confidence, your immune system is affected, and you are doing things that really compromise your career’.  

Mean girls, as we know, are not relegated to the workplace. Stacey*, 30, has been dealing with a mother-in-law who consistently puts her down in front of her husband and child, everything from her cooking, to the TV show her child watches to the way she carries the groceries. Melinda*, 35, faces it with a group of high school friends, where one woman just does not acknowledge her presence in group settings, or laughs at things she says and wears. A lot of the time, this can also come to down to cultural values or those from a different time. However, does that excuse the behaviour? 

The answer, in my view, is no.  

In school, girls are learning and growing, and finding their feet in the world in the progression to becoming women. I am not saying this excuses bullying at this stage of life either (and can speak from experience), but you would hope that when these girls grow to become women of the world, they leave this behind. The difference in adulthood is that we know have education, knowledge and experience. Some of us have daughters. This perspective means we as women need to band together and make a choice against this type of unacceptable mean girl behaviour, whether it is calling it out in public, in private, or leaving a situation.   

In my job, I left. It was not ideal. I loved the industry and my other friends. I thought I was crazy, and I was so embarrassed as to what my now-husband, friends and family would think of me for not being able to 'get on with it' or for being 'difficult'. But the relationship with this gas-lighting manager was destroying my mental health and had started to affect me physically. Would it have been better to do it another way? Perhaps. But I didn’t think my mental health was worth sacrificing for a job. No one’s is. My view is that workplaces need to take greater responsibility for this type of behaviour, particularly with management. Many people, men and women, are promoted into management roles based on being good at tasks, not at being good with people. Leadership courses for these type of roles should be mandatory. Whilst employees are ticked off on KPIs, no one is checking in to ensure that employees are being managed properly and fairly. I only found out when  I left the role that three women had held my position over the last 12 months, and all had left for the same reasons. Surely there was only one common denominator that needed to be accurately addressed?  

The behaviour is simply outdated in this day and age. I’m not proud of the fact that on reflection, I could be a bit of a bitchy girl in high school. While it wasn’t direct bitchiness or bullying, I engaged in gossip and the way I talked about other women is not the way I would now. That has come with age, experience, and changing times. But I believe ignorance in the information age is a choice; and it needs to be made clear that #metoo isn’t just about calling out men…but it’s about women also respecting other women.  

If this is happening to you, try these tips:   

-Look inward. Don’t go crazy over it, but is it possible they are right, the start time was 8am not 9am as you suggested? Just make sure of the facts first, not your feelings. How you feel is how you feel.  

-Write down everything, and date and time it. Even if a comment seems small and insignificant, over time if it keeps happening, all are relevant.  

-Talk to a mental health professional. If things are getting really bad for you, make sure you have a professional who is able to guide and assist you through your situation and come up with an action plan if needed.  

-Protect yourself. Do not engage or gossip with the person if and when they ‘act’ like your friend, as this may be information that can be used later. Stay professional.  

-If you feel comfortable, talk to HR, and ask to have them in the room with the other person if the relationship has deteriorated as such that you cannot be alone together.  

My hope is that the birth of #metoo, which 100% needed to happen, will not only changes mens behaviour toward women, but our own toward each other. After all:

Image: Beyonce Knowles-Carter

Have you had a story of bullying by another woman recently?  


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