Let’s look at the facts: 80 percent of workplace bullying targets are women (Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI)). Compare those numbers to other issues we generally see as women’s issues:
- Sexual harassment: 79 percent were targets of sexual harassment are women (Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE)).
- Domestic violence: 85 percent of targets of domestic violence (physical, financial, and/or emotional abuse) are women (Huffington Post).
So what’s the answer?
The simply answer is no. Men can be targets of workplace bullying just as they can be targets of sexual harassment and domestic violence.
But the facts are too hard to ignore: women take the overwhelming majority of the brunt of these abuses. While we don’t have research to support why women are more than twice as likely to bear the brunt of workplace bullying, we can make some educated guesses as to why it’s the case:
- We value masculine over feminine. Competition over cooperation. Capitalism breeds competition, a trait we associate with masculinity. Yet studies repeatedly show that it’s cooperation, not competition in the workplace, that increases a bottom line. Even if a female boss is the perpetrator of abuse, she’s abusing under a masculine, competitive culture.
- Men hold the power in the workplace. If anyone has power to abuse, it’s men. “Women are only 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of top earners, and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs,” reported the Center for American Progress in 2014. It’s men who are most often creating the workplace culture from the top down.
- Men may feel more entitled to power and may not be aware of how they exhibit this entitlement. Perhaps because men more commonly have power positions, men feel more entitled to power. Anecdotally, I’ve been taken aback by male colleagues who claim to support healthy workplaces yet also grab power by saying “we’ve let you…” or “don’t do this…” instead of “what do you think of…?” In other words, they don’t see our roles of equal value, they feel entitled to dictate, and they don’t work collaboratively.
How we change the gender dynamics
History shows that it’s often not until the privileged speak up that norms change. Take civil rights or same sex marriage. First, the violated group speaks up through grassroots efforts. Eventually, the subjects become household topics.
The New York Times author Irin Carmon addresses this issue along gender lines specifically. In her article “What Women Really Think of Men,” a piece about not letting men off the hook for not recognizing women’s equal humanity, she uses the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations” to describe “just dealing” with the status quo. “Men taking responsibility, even retrospectively, is what it’s going to take for us to believe another world is possible,” she says.
As advocates of the Healthy Workplace Bill in Massachusetts, we’ve all read comments on online workplace bullying articles telling targets to just get a tough skin or a new job — that life is just hard, and bullying on the job is just another problem that we have to deal with.
Workplace abuse experts compare workplace bullying with domestic violence. In the recent past, it was perfectly legal for a husband to beat his wife. Imagine telling a battered wife to “just leave” or to “toughen up” as her self-esteem worsens but yet she needs to rebuild her life. Doesn’t sound simple, does it?
A workplace abuse target faces a similar problem. As bullies encourage targets who care about their work and organizations to question their abilities, targets feel beaten down and lose confidence to find another job. Even if they do have the strength to find another job, they generally need months to find other work — and endure more abuse during those months.
And those who’ve experienced workplace abuse know that the only way to “solve” the problem is to leave the organization. Speaking up is ineffective according to a study by the Workplace Bullying Institute.
This tough skin that some speak of — tolerating often months of abuse before leaving an organization — leaves many targets with health problems and many businesses with more costs (absenteeism, training new employees, lawsuits) than if they had addressed the problem to begin with and disciplined the bully.
“Get a tough skin” and “just find a new job” aren’t smart or realistic answers when it comes to addressing workplace bullying.