Was Wooly Bully a Woman?

The recent New York Times article entitled “Backlash: Women Bullying Women” instantly reminded me of the 1960’s song, “Wooly Bully”*. Its logic was garbled and its presentation just plain silly, but it was nevertheless so entertainingly in tune with the culture of the day that it became a big hit.

Though the piece began by acknowledging that men are the majority (60%!) of workplace bulliers, that fact was quickly dismissed. Why wasn’t it the headline? Because it’s so obvious. It’s not a “man bites dog” story.

Instead, the reporter zeroed in on the finding that of women who do bully, 70% choose other women as their targets. Then the article proceeded to analyze this through the lens of a recurring cultural narrative, far too often embraced by even the New York Times despite evidence to the contrary, that women can’t get along, that women don’t support other women, that women are their own worst enemies when it comes to fostering workplace advancement.

These stories overlook important dynamics:

  • Men still determine the workplace culture in most instances, because they hold the majority of top power positions. We’re still in the midst of an unfinished revolution after all.
  • Though women now hold about half of management and professional positions, they tend to be the junior partners and when it comes to the top positions with the most clout, women lag far behind men: for example, still just 15% of Fortune 500 top officers and board members. So plain and simple, the men at the top have more choices of whom to bully.
  • Bullies will always pick on those with less power. And since more women work in the lower echelons of power (who still holds the majority of administrative assistant jobs, for example?), women who are more likely to hold the lower-status management positions are not likely to bully someone with more power, but rather to pick on someone closer to their own size if they are the bullying kind.
  • People who are oppressed tend to oppress others. That is the behavior they have learned from the dominant culture.
  • One highly effective way the prevailing culture can keep women in their traditional place, and men can keep their traditional power, is to belittle women; that is, to keep these stories of the lack of female cooperation perpetually bubbling like warm yeast sponge.

So what’s the big story that women, who are less powerful already than men, are more likely to bully other women if indeed they bully someone? It’s a statistical artifact.

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This doesn’t make it right, nor am I in any way condoning bullying, but a look at these factors does begin to point us to where we need to go to correct the problem.

And, wait, there’s more to consider: studies of management decision making groups have found that where there are more women, there is actually better behavior, better decisions, and less corruption.

In “Women Matter,” a study published in 2007 by McKinsey &Co., the management consultants, asserts that companies employing at least 30% female executives–not just a token woman here or there–perform better than all-male outfits. Female managers are more likely than men to make collaborative decisions, to behave as role models and to consider the ethical consequences of their acts, McKinsey’s study found. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to make decisions on their own and then order the troops to carry them out.

Now tell me, why isn’t this the story grabbing the New York Times headlines? Because it is revolutionary, whereas the “women bully women” story is just titillating–like female Jello wrestling, or “The L-Word”.

Cultural myths, whether true or not, are hard to change. That’s why when I speak to women’s professional and leadership groups, I tell them they have the responsibility to create a new narrative. I encourage them to act with what I call Sister Courage.

Sister Courage applies movement building principles to making positive change in the workplace, and it has three parts. First, be a sister proactively–ask for help when you need it and reach out to other women when they need you. Second, have courage to talk about the workplace problems that need to be addressed; this can be done in professional and appropriately assertive ways by marshalling facts and offering proposals. Passive aggression gets you nowhere. And finally, join together for greater influence using the Sister Courage techniques of movement building that I teach. This behavior is how to make the workplace more conducive to productivity and humanity and to lessen the probability that anyone, male or female, will become either the perpetrator or the recipient of bullying.

And that’s no bull.

*Here for your viewing pleasure in all their silly glory, Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs singing “Wooly Bully”.



  1. Gloria Buono Daly on May 13, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    Dear Gloria Feldt,

    Thank you for your comments. Do you realize how many insecure women managers there are in the workforce? These women managers hire consultants to do their job because they don’t have the skills to and get so envious of them whenever they realize how accomplished the consultant is (especially if they hire a female consultant). Also, these insecure femals managers are jealous of the new women employees and will make it miserable for the new hires especially if they see how much pride their counterparts take in their work. I’m sure you realize why so many women have made it to the very top. Surely, you must be aware of how many women would sell their souls and reputations to keep their job. They will have sex with their bosses to get the big promotion, if another women comes by and is more sillled and talented, they will make sure that that person is not noticed and does not get credit for any accomplishments. Surely, you must be kidding if you believe this does not exist, especially in these tough economic conditions. I wish you were right but you must be kidding? There are so many senior women executives who are jealous of their female counterparts or the new consultants who have a lot to offer. There are tons of insecure senior level and middle manager female managers/executives. Why do you think there are so many companies having to hire consultants to do work? Because the hire they have do not have the skill or talent to do it. Bottomline, so many executives (men and women) lack the takent and are vy fortunate to be in a position to be able to hire consultants to do their work for them. They make it dificult for the honest, diligent working woman to get ahead. Of course, I’m sure not all women have experienced being bullied by women. So if you feel that you probably haven’t experienced what many women have, that’s great but II can guarantee you that many women have had to go to the extremes of documenting their experiences of women bullying other women. Below please find more information taken from a non-profit http:www.dignityatwork.org :

    Am I being bullied?

    If you are experiencing any of the following at work then you are being bullied and you are entitled to take things further by speaking to your HR manager or union representative.

    Bullies may use terror tactics, open aggression, threats, shouting, abuse, and obscenities towards their target

    Bullies may subject their target to constant humiliation or ridicule, belittling their efforts, often in front of others

    Bullies may subject their target to excessive supervision, monitoring everything they do and being excessively critical about minor things

    Bullies may take the credit for other people’s work but never take the blame when things go wrong

    Bullies may constantly override the person’s authority

    Bullies may remove whole areas of work responsibility from the person, reducing their job to routine tasks that are well below their skills and capabilities

    Bullies may set the person what they know to be impossible objectives, or constantly change the work remit without telling the person, and then criticise or reprimand the person for not meeting their demands

    Bullies may ostracise and marginalise their target, dealing with the person only through a third party, excluding the person from discussions, decisions etc

    Bullies may spread malicious rumours about the individual

    For more information about how to beat bullying at work, go to http://www.dignityatwork.org

    I’m looking forward to your feedback and thank you.


  2. Gloria Feldt on May 14, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    Thank you for this excellent check list and source of assistance for those who feel they are being bullied.

    I think there will always be people in the workplace and elsewhere who operate from a position that power is finite, resources are finite, and so I must get my piece of the pie and hang onto it no matter what and by whatever means. In reality, sharing power increases the power and that in turn increases the strength of any organization.I would like to see a more expansive approach to managers and leaders thinking about this, and I believe one of the results would be to reduce the incidences of inappropriate and bullying behavior you cited.And I would like to focus on changing the behavior by turning it into more positive actions.

    Men and women, boys and girls, whatever their roles need to be educated early on about appropriate behavior as they interact with others, whether on the playground or in the workplace. Bullies are usually operating out of fear and insecurity. They can be taught more effective behavior patterns. Check out Peter Yarrow’s group Operation Respect here: http://www.operationrespect.org/ for example.

    A question though: Do remember that the study cited found 60% of the bulliers are men. Perhaps you are saying that men and women use different bullying behaviors? Surely you aren’t saying women are the more frequent bulliers?

  3. Gloria Buono Daly on May 14, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    Hello Gloria Feldt:

    Thank you for your reply and you are absolutely correct, I am not saying that there are more women bullies in the word force than men. Sorry for this comment, but there’s a lot to women bullying and something needs to be done to protect professional women who stand up and seem to always get their career compromised when it should be the other way around..

    In regards to education I feel compelled to mention to you that some of the women who have bullied are indeed educated. One even had her degree from Princeton and on my interview at Universal American Financial Corporation in Rye Brook, NY, this person bragged that she was a VP from a big dot com ad agency. This was when I consulted there back in August to December 2007. Yet while working with her she would begin to ask me very basic questions that anyone in a VP level and from a dot com would know, for example, one question she asked was “I’ve been trying to figure something out for a few weeks now but I cant. Would you know how can I view html for our web site?” When I openly shared my expertise, she took and instead of thanking me, she went on to berate me because I explained it to her yet this was per her request. Another instance was when she had a question was regarding a communications kit that had to be updated, besides my catching a big grammatical error that has been used for over a few years, she couldn’t understand why everything had to match (e.g., outside folder, envelopes, stationary, etc. And when I explained (after her question to me of course) that it must be consistent and to be professional we must have a “creative theme alignment.” She would again get very denigratory and defensive with me after I explained this to her. She replied to the effect “I’m from an ad agency and dot com, of course I know these things.”

    This is why when my contract expired and I was not even considered for an increase I ecided to not continue. This is when she then told me “that I’m not a committed professional and that I’m screwing her and now she will be unable to complete a direct marketing grid, putting all blame on me.” There was another instance where she and her 2 crony workers made a $100,000 printing error in printing benefit statements. Thank goodness she couldn’t blame me for that as she has 2 other workers involved in that and the 3 of them couldn’t get a simple thing right. Shareholders should be aware of that error which cost the company probably more than $100,000 as the postage envelopes were already affixed with postal labels which all had to be redone, so the impact wasn’t only printing but lettershop.

    So surely, you can understand what this can do to a talented, professional woman in the workforce. Indeed, it hurt me financially but ethically and professionally, she’s still in her dumb dead end job and I’m certainly better off.

    I also worked for another ivy leaguer this one from Wharton who made an error an requested I do her a favor by taking blame. This was back in the late seventies when I was just out of college working at CBS Records International. I have several more I can probably write a book. Usually we all grin and bear it but after a while when someone bullies and denigrates one’s livelihood, woman or man, we need legislative laws to protect the workers being subjected to this. I’m wishing you the best of continued success.

    Thank you again and best regards,

  4. Debjani Chakravarty on May 15, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    “Women turned against women” or just women-women interface makes good media spectacle that sells. Like the “Mommy Wars” and “Bride Wars.” Like, as Gloria points out, female Jello wrestling, or “The L-Word”. These are the cultural products playing on the proverbial “women are women’s biggest enemy” type propositions, and essential objectification of the feminine that provide anti-feminists comfort. These also provide interesting distractions from the issue of gender oppression and marginalization.

    This is not to suggest that women do not bully. Why, I’ve been bullied and manipulated by a certain woman in a position of power. Today, years after our professional relationship is over, I tend to focus on her matchless scholarship, her steadfast mentoring and her genuine concern for my development, and my misgivings for her are subsumed by my feelings of gratitude. She did not bully me because she wanted to create a hostile work environment for me, to belittle me, to make me leave—she decided push me too far to make me better, an approach that did not work with me and would not work with most people. Her aggressive behavior, her criticisms (constructive, still very harsh) her disregarding that I have a life outside the workplace, all stemmed from the fact that she was too invested in me. She did not realize she was pushing me over the edge. This was quite different from conventional workplace bullying which is usually purposive, intentional, vicious, with a motive to exploit, hurt and obstruct. I am not suggesting that all women bullies are like the one I mention. Studies done about bullying overwhelmingly show that power imbalance is the most common reason for bullying behavior. As the workplace becomes diverse, bullying becomes a form of discriminating against minorities, those that are seen as different, unable to retaliate, unable to garner support. Women bullies at workplace are simply responding to an unhealthy work environment rife with power imbalances, reproducing faulty work ethics—there is nothing essentially feminine about their undesirable behavior.

    Meece frames the problem in a way that feminizes it. She uses evidence and statistics to prove her point (and I am not even asking about the validity of research methods applied by “the Workplace Bullying Institute”), reinforcing the stereotype of women being aggressive to compete for “dad’s attention” and then “the teacher’s attention” and finally the boss’ attention. She is evidently attempting to find the answer to the question, “why women bully”. Shouldn’t the question be what causes this gendered attention deficit? Shouldn’t the question be why there is a gendered wage gap? Meece succeeds in framing “women-bullying-women” as the real problem than workplace bullying as a whole. The question of power imbalance is not very well represented in her article. Her intention seems to be representing women as crabs in the bucket, pulling each other down so that no one rises high enough. She completely discounts the possibility that there are alternative approaches used by women to move forward and excel without taking each other by the legs.

    Gloria’s notion of Sister Courage is something that is manifested much more, at home and workplace, between friends and colleagues, between strangers and feminist movements all over the world. But such manifestations do not make good press copy. As feminism’s job remains unfinished and newer, subtler modes of discrimination and oppression emerge, it is perhaps more useful to focus on alliances rather than animosities, to focus on solutions rather than gently sensationalize the problem as the article seems to have done. Let’s see some evidence-based articles on sister courage instead.

  5. Gloria Feldt on May 15, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    What an incredibly interesting and insightful comment, Debjani. Your description of the woman who both mentored and pushed you to the point where it might be called bullying is probably repeated many times in many people’s careers. It made me recall that one of the first bosses I ever had was the sort of woman you describe. Mildred was a tough, crusty journalist who had worked for many years in what was then largely a man’s world. She left it when LBJ’s Great Society programs began and she became executive director of Head Start in Odessa TX. I volunteered there for a year and then she offered me a teaching ob. She too pushed and prodded, and she must have seem something in me that made her keep giving me the toughest assignments and special projects. Sometimes when she gave me advice, I felt like she was putting me down. But over the years I have realized she was most often right. “You cerebrate too much”, was one of her famous comments about a report I wrote. “You don’t have to drop your whole data base.” “Don’t write so they understand you, write so they can’t possibly misunderstand you.”

    Forty years later, I still remember these words and learned so much from them and her. Her rigorous standards and the fact that she gave me opportunities to stretch myself are probably why I was later able to take on executive positions myself.

    So this whole bullying topic is perhaps more complex than it seems on the surface. Thanks for a most provocative post.

  6. Gloria Buono Daly on May 18, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    Very impressive comments and rhetoric. Unfortunately though, women bullying women is an issue that must be addressed. Anyone who says otherwise, is a bully and coward. Of course, men bully women (and mem) but they are cowards and not real men. However when women bully other women it has an even greater impact as women are suppose to be more ethical, stronger, nurturing and supportive of other women. I’m always very disappointed when I hear of stories when women bully other women. True sensationalism sells in many aspects, not just women against women. Media, press included, love stories that sell.

  7. lois on June 2, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    I agree with your comments but don’t you think that we are returning to the era of the 1950’s instead of moving ahead? Our accountant (a woman) is sleeping with the owner of the company that I’m working for? I can’t believe this kind of thing still goes on? Can you or am I just too innocent?

  8. GBD on September 5, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    This is a tough one. And I’m not here to judge any person’s relationships. However, keep in mind the owner of a company is exempt from office politics and is free to have a relationship with whomever he chooses (in the company or outside). This is not to say that I would recommend any woman sleeping with a co-worker or boss. However, if this accountant and owner were really in love, they are probably married by now or she has left her company to work at another concern for the health of her relationship. If not, I’m certain she is very unhappy, miserable and probably not feeling too good about herself.

  9. […] each other. But how do we know these things are true? Could it also be true that women, like other minorities who have historically been disenfranchised and excluded from so many important conversati… That we unconsciously pit ourselves against each other very often now, even when we don’t have […]

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