Thursday, 15 October 2009

The real bullies: older women

According to a recent survey undertaken by the Unison Trade Union, one in three young women in the UK claims to have been bullied at work. The publication of the survey’s results has been timed to coincide with the Union’s demands for new anti-bullying laws.

But it emerges that it’s not men who are the perpetrators of the bullying; young women are particularly at risk of bullying and the most common perpetrators were older women in more senior professional positions.

Of those who have been on the receiving end of the bullying, 73% believed that bullying was fuelled by increased work pressures during the recession and 40% felt that bullies were tolerated in the challenging environment created by the credit crunch.

The concern of the Trade Union is directed at the fact that although the vast majority of organisations have a policy on workplace bullying, many victims believe that the policy is ignored, leading to anger, mental stress, depression, lowered confidence and insomnia.

Dave Prentis, Unison’s general secretary, said: “Our research has shown that bullying is accepted in many organisations – we need to change this attitude now. This shocking survey shows that the bullying and harassment of young women in the workplace is spiralling out of control.”

People Management: One in three young women bullied at work
  • What’s your response to the results of this survey?
  • Is it a surprise to learn that it’s other women who are often the bullies, rather than men?
  • If such behaviour is a result of the challenges created by the recession, will it just disappear when the economic situation improves?
  • Can legislation be effective in removing unacceptable behaviour in the workplace?
  • Can individual organisations address this issue without the need for a change in legislation?


  1. About twenty years ago, my then employer began to employ women in a technical capacity. Before that women did the admin and the men did the technical/engineering stuff. So, a group of women in their late teens / earlier twenties were taken on and subsequently were, at times, treated terribly not by the men but by the older women. One woman actually said to one of the new trainees "You shouldn't be a technician, that's a man's job!"

    Personally, I think it's all down to jealousy. The opportunities open to young women are far better now than they were thirty years ago and there'll be some older women who have quite a bit of resentment.

  2. Is it a surprise to hear that women are bullies, absolutely not. Ever been around a group of women – they may be referred to as the fairer sex but some women can be extremely effective at belittling others, making others feel isolated and generally knocking every ounce of confidence out of someone (male or female).

    I agree with Les Paul Junior that there can be an issue between older women who, as was the social norm, put careers aside to bring up a family and younger women who have focused on their professions and are now typically more equal in terms of economic provision within the family.

    I also think there is something about women who have risen up the career ladder who feel that in order to succeed in a mans world they must put any feminine qualities to one side and ‘be like a man’. I say – celebrate the differences.

    And then of course there’s the elephant in the corner – sex. As a middle aged woman who is trying to do a great job (but needs the best that Marks and Spencer can offer in terms of undies) who do you favour, the younger male colleague or the pretty up and coming female? Flirtation or competition? Not racket science is it? Maybe it’s not a PC thing to say but hey, we’re all human.

    Thank goodness I look like the back end of a bus – no competition for anyone!!!


  3. I'm finding that more employees are resistant to supervision and management. A meeting with an employee, woman or not, about poor work performance turns into an opportunity for making counter accusations of the supervisor not being professional, of singling out the employee, and the true issue of poor performance is minimized. Or the employee takes the opportunity to point out everything other employees have done wrong in the last 12 months. Employees might feel bad when a manager or supervisor points out their failings, but feelings aside, an organisation has a mission which shouldn't be compromised for the fragile egos and feelings of any employee.

  4. I agree with the first two comments. Women bully other women in & out of the work place. It's down to their insecurity. I've been bullied by older & younger women. If your attractive & or talented, other women feel threatened. It's one reason I have little time for my own sex. Unless you conform to their stereo-type, the knives come out.
    I was bullied to such an extent I gave up the work. Men are either blind to it or think it's ok.

  5. About 9 years ago I was bullied by an older woman at work. She was someone that I had previously got on well with, and her attacks on me seemed to come out of nowhere. At the time I crumbled and even began to believe some of the things she said about me. Thankfully she moved to another part of the organisation before I totally gave up and left my job. Nine years on I'm a completely different person and would react to the situation differently. I still see intimidation by older women in the workplace but it's of a different kind now. I agree with comments above about professional jealousy. The type of "bullying" that comes my way now is more associated with reactions to what they might perceive as being a bit too competent at my job for their liking. Unfortunately it seems that us women don't support each other in the way that we should.

  6. Here’s a question: if a man is being bullied by an older woman will he report it or is he likely to just put up with it because it’s embarrassing?


  7. To all who have contributed so far: a big thank you. It's good to see some debate on this important subject, but worrying to read that workplace bullying is clearly one of those crimes that leaves its victims suffering in silence for far too long

  8. The style of bullying employed by women is quite different to that used by men, I think. Men are more direct, whereas women can be very manipulative. I'm sure most of us have friends who say something that sounds innocuous, but has a real barb in the tail.

    Bad enough when it's just in a social setting - but really undermining at work!

  9. Thanks for that Vandy!

    It would be interesting to look at the metrics from those organisations that have Respect at Work/Anti Harrassment policies. Wonder how many claims of victimisation by women are raised in contrast to claims of victimisation by men?

  10. Professional women tend to extremes. My best and worst managers have been women. Speaking personally, all the middling managers that there isn't much good or bad to say about have been men. Unfortunately the 'harder' sort of woman is the one tends to get promoted. And since fewer women work in executive positions, they probably have more fear for their jobs and see the younger women as a threat.

  11. Working girl:

    Thanks for the comments. It would be interesting to know if you've noticed any differences in the different cultures in which you've lived and worked!


  12. In the mid 1990s I had a boss who was a bully. Both of us were in our mid-30s and it was just awful. WORSE than junior high. I put up with her and her increasingly sadistic behavior for nearly a year because I was lead to believe that if I didn't succeed in her department I wouldn't be promoted to management within the company. She started taking away responsibilities from me to the point where I had more to do 6 months prior to that. I made the mistake of crying in front of her...and after that every time I tried to say something, she'd cut me off with "oh, you're not going to CRY now, are you? I finally asked for and received a transfer to a different department but my chances of promotions at that company were pretty much dead, I left the company a year later. Crappy thing here: SHE got promoted :(

    Ladies: it is not worth it to put up with a bully no matter how many promises they make re: promotions and raises. Bullies don't change...either confront them from the get go or get out.

  13. Hello..

    I also think it depends on the industry you work in. I worked in the engineering industry and we did have a few senior engineers who were women. However the environment was very casual, friendly. I guess the fact that the ratio of men:women was 30:1 also played a part. Everyone did their work, joked around at tea time then got back to work, not too much interaction other than with team members.

    My friend on the other hand worked in a advertising company. 25 to 40% women. She had a really hard time. The sad part is that it was not because of her supervisors or her team lead, but from the administrators and secretaries. They really made her life miserable and really had no professional gain from putting her down. They were much older than her and used it their advantage. My friend is Indian, and respect for her elders is literally part of her culture. She tried reasoning, complaining, retorting: nothing got to those ladies. She was not the only one affected, most of her female co-workers had suffered the same, she just happened to be the latest victim. During the course of her work at this company she said bye to more than half the female employees. She left the company within a year of joining.

    Don't know if I am generalizing too much, but if I think that in departments such as HR and admin where there is a lot of personal interaction, the younger women may be seen as a threat or just weaker and hence maybe bullied by older women while those who work in other industries such as engineering or mining, where the interaction is slightly different there is a lesser chance of getting bullied.

    What do you think?

  14. V: Sincere apologies for the delay in responding, but just to say thanks enormously for the lengthy and profound posting. I defintely think that you have a point about the issue of repect for elders which is also a factor in the issue. It's certainly sad that there are are functions such as HR (which surely should be the function which tackles the issue!)which are predominantly female, but these are the ones in which a lot of bullying still takes place.

  15. Hi all, I've just started a new job in Paris and am in an office with a woman who inexplicably cant stand me. Im 24 and she's 38ish. Its really uncomfortable and very subtle i.e she ignores me and leaves in the evening saying goodbye to everyone but me,i.e.gets her coat and walks right past me...and talks about me to colleagues while im in the room my french isnt fantastic so she thinks i dont understand...she complains about me to the other staff within earshot too its very ignorant...her main theme is that im too quiet and she doesnt like sharing the office with me, but having been in the job for just 3 weeks i would think thats completely normal,plus im in a foreign country where i dont speak the language v well and in a new city on my own..its undermining my confidence already and other people i work with's attitude has changed towards me too, i just dont understand what her problem with me is.Strangest thing of all is that she gets on well with everyone else and i cant see any reason for her to be jealous/intimidated..anyway i definately think the older woman bullying theme is very current!!

  16. Anonymous (31st January)

    Just to say many thanks for posting the details of your current situation.

    It's clearly not an easy situation to deal with, and I'm sure that the language difference will only make things more difficult.

    I hope that you can find a way to resolve the situation: do let us know if we can point you in the direction of any help

  17. My experience has been with older women bullying me, as a younger woman. It's definitely down to jealousy of some sort, which has always struck me as odd because these women were usually popular, competent and attractive in their own right. I guess they just didn't want to share the limelight.

    I'm now in my early 30s and lately I have dealt with many older men who have bullied me, in personal friendships, which is very interesting.

    They have all done the same thing/followed the same pattern - at least 10-20 years older than me, first they launch an attack on me, telling me everything they hate about me, then they deny me the right to respond (either by blocking me online, or demanding I never contact them again) and then they disappear! And each one occurred after I disagreed with them politely on something/showed I had a mind of my own. Despite having many mutual personal and professional ties, these much older men choose to behave towards me with this disrespect. So I am finding that it is not just the women.

    Having said that, these were platonic friendships, not work relationships. I find that men are more supportive at work, women are a nightmare. But in my personal friendships lately, men tend to be the nightmare, and women are ok. Women used to be a nightmare - had a few female friends well into my 20s who turned on me within a short while, became competitive, stole men etc. But now my female friendships seem to have improved! Strange!

    To Anonymous in Paris, I would say you had the right to confront this woman. You know for certain she is talking about you to other people, so she cannot hide behind subtlety or making out that you are imagining it, like so many women do. She is being highly disrespectful and unprofessional, and I do hope you confronted her in the end. Chin up ;)

  18. I was shocked by how I was treated by my boss and customers at my first job. I grew up skating at rinks during my childhood and people treated me a lot better there.

    I wish my teachers had warned me that, in the real world, I'd be treated and looked upon as though I'm no more intelligent than a five year old.

    Well, just because someone is a young adult, doesn't mean that they're ignorant and haven't had any bad experiences in their lives. It's not a walk in the park to hear your parents shout, swear, and/or hit each other or you.

    I feel frustrated that older adults just seem to think that they can treat me the way they treat their children.

  19. No I am not surprised that women bully I have had a lot of bullying by both men and women in my career- I live in sheltered accommodation now and our scheme co-ordinator is being currently bullied by her line manager who is older and jealous and bitter - of her youth and attractiveness - People in management are threatened by everyone - those above and those below. The system is rancid both men and women bully because they can take their disappointments in life out on others who daren't answer back. Maybe there should be constant surveillance as people do for elderly rellies who are in care homes and at risk.
    I knew someone in the early eighties who carried a really heavy recording machine around with him and recorded every conversation with professionals - I thought he was paranoid but then I realised a lot of people really are out to get you and there is no one looking out for you.

  20. older women are not more prone than younger women to bullying. having been a student with people 30 years younger than myself for the last 6 years, i can only say that younger women as a group constantly try to bully the older students. this is because the older ones are in the minority, and alone, because young people don't want to be seen talking to them....classic conditions for bullying to start....the fact of not being spoken to, they call it the 'bubble' among older students... total social know you are not liked because of your age, so you have to work on un-focussing from any expectations of support, friendliness and cameraderie and go it alone.... and then what you often have is some young woman turning onto the professor in a seminar, and taking the piss out of you, specifically, competing with you, because they are threatened by you, and know that sexuality and attractiveness to the professor in question is your weak point, and you have no friends to see this happening and recognize it as willful humiliation, all you can do is keep quiet and crack a joke about not being able to compete. oh no, young women can be vicious and competitive and lets face it, the way men are made, we just can't win that battle, so they utterly humiliate us if we even see ourselves as sexual beings. you have to totally disconnect from your sexuality, become anaesthetized to humiliation in that department, or to having any desire or any need to be appreciated. you also have to get used to the majority of male professors equating your lack of cuteness with your lack of intelligence. i have had to ask for a remark once, my mark went from 40 percent with a male to 86 with a female marker.

  21. the older woman jealous of the younger's beauty is a toxic myth a la snow white and the seven dwarves.... and it assumes quite a lot... that after having lived so long, seen so much and been so empowered by growing through so many painful experiences way larger than coming last in a beauty competition, that all we want is a man's approval... the suggestions that this is what its all about are male voices coming through....check it out

  22. I'm late to this party of sorts. I've discovered that women are truly the worst even for women five to ten years younger. My experience began five years ago when I took a job as a skills trainer in a university after my business of seven years failed. My manager initially thought I was good enough to hire but then rapidly progressed to belittling, undermining, destroying my confidence and spreading lies and gossip. I eventually took her to HR, and it sort of reduced in intensity.

    Unfortunately the stress contributed to making me ill, and during a stress related break from work I was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition which involves my spine, joints, lungs, heart, makes me very ill. This gave her something to focus on, to get rid of; and so the gossiping would start, she'd ask if stress worsened my condition (I never let on it did, as I'm sure she'd have quite happily had me dead and buried).

    I ended up requesting redeployment, but she then went against HRs wishes and instructions and went and spoke to the people who would manage me! This was before I would even have a chance to speak to them! HR and the head of dept didn't even slap her on the wrist.

    Initially the move to my new department was fine, until I went to enroll for my Masters which I'd already started and was told that as my job had changed, that my new manager wouldn't support my application namely one day release a month. I sucked it up and then had a mini breakdown, suddenly my raison d'être disappeared and I was stuck in another job, and realised that I'd exchanged one bully for another.

    It's been like that ever since. I ended up having to go part time to do my masters even though it had been agreed by my head of department previously. The work from home advised by Occupational Health has been discouraged and needs to be requested (begged for) in order to manage the fatigue caused by my chronic condition aka disability.

    If I have a colleague in my room for any length of time longer than five minutes I can expect a knock at the door and a demand to know what the meeting is about.

    I'm told that a project can take five days to complete and if it overruns by two it's OK, only for the next day to be told it has to be done in three.

    I've been accused of hiding my Outlook calendar from her view... When I was working from home and managing my fatigue, I worked late one night and emailed late to advise a colleague of some changes and that I might be in late the next day - my manager tells me the next morning that she "can't work with anyone she doesn't trust" and to this day I have absolutely no clue what the hell she means, and neither does anyone else I've told.

    I really need to get out, the only person keeping me sane is my amazing husband. He's been my rock, and he's put up with my illness and with my rollercoaster of emotions due to these energy vampires. I hope no-one else has to go through the crap I've endured.

    1. I'm so sorry you've had to go through all that and yes, you're absolutely right, they are energy vampires. They have little or no light of their own so they have to suck it out of those of us that do. And then we are weakened and guess who ends up running the world! We can fight it though, energetically and physically, once we know what we're dealing with. I've found they are the same no matter what body they're in. Much love xx

  23. Anonymous (30 June 2014): Thanks for your openness and honesty in what is clearly a horrible situation. I hope that you can find a resolution, and that it helps others in a similar situation to realise that they are not alone.

  24. You know what, I'm a female CEO in my thirties and, since I set up my company, I have been betrayed and backstabbed in business so many times, and some of this was by former friends of both sexes. I had two separate incidents of this yesterday, one of them was a male, older, member of my 'staff' who had previously been fine and one of them was a family member my age! So I can understand your friend's paranoia. I put the word staff in inverted commas as they are technicallyfreelancers who have been commissioned by me. Due to the nature of my field it would be difficult for me to fire them, too (I wish) so I can't really say anymore than that. I also have two older female 'staff' members who have now formed what can only be described as an unholy alliance against me. They are ten years older, and both attempted to bully me recently but I stood up to them. They didn't like that. It was as if they could only handle the nice positive relationship I like to have with everyone I bring into my company, if I allowed them to control me, take advantage of me and my money, order me around like a minion, and bully me publicly. I stood up to both on numerous separate occasions and they have now both become very withdrawn and when they do communicate it is coldly and overly, weirdly, formal. It's a very odd atmosphere, toxic even, and not the type of thing I want in my working life but I am unable to show them the door without risking legal problems from them. If I could fire them, I would! They are basically narcissists, believe all their success (opportunity to have it at all was as a result of me bringing them into my company) is solely down to them, and unfortunately the business world, as well as my specific field, is full of them. I think age is a big factor too - neither older men nor older women seem to be able to trust me to do my job properly/run my companyand they become highly critical and treacherous (almost mutinous...) very quickly over the smallest things. It's also about power - I run the company, they don't, and the ones I've had problems with seem to all share a narcissistic attitude of entitlement to automatic respect and power (because of their age, possibly) and the right to bully and control me, and anyone they believe is (or ought to be - like me...) below them. I have been a high achiever all my life, frequently surpassing my peers but with absolute humility and great camaraderie with them, and I have never needed to bully or step on other people, or be aggressive at all. That you have to be pushy and insensitive to get ahead in this world is a fallacy. That view is only prevalent because there are too many of these pushy (largely not as talented or attractive as their targets) narcissistic vampires around making people feel they have to be like them - they've bitten and infected a lot of the population! I refuse to fall under their influence though, I am
    working on the antidote ;) The less people who fall for that fallacy and succumb to the vampires' bites the better! I'm currently on the waiting list for counselling via my GP right now, because the most recent bouts of drama with the aforementioned gruesome twosome made me ill and stressed me out that much that I feel I need support on the job. What is especially interesting about those two is that they both have a public facade of empowering others, especially women, and have an army of followers. But I know the truth... Take care everyone, we'll overcome this. Most of the the time it's a backhanded compliment, because we're stronger and more capable than they are. Remember they need to suck our blood and drain our energy, not the other way round!

  25. I've been on the receiving end of unwanted positive attention from men and bullying from women ever since I entered the work force in 1981.

    It's all to do with my physical appearance. I've been told that I am attractive and this is both a blessing and a curse. I come from a very conservative family and dress and behave in a respectful, modest way. I am a quiet, sometimes slightly shy person and this is often misinterpreted as aloofness and conceit--by women, not men. Men have a completely different interpretation. They see me as being seductively vulnerable and mysterious. I'm not!

    Women hate me for the same reason that men like me.

    For that reason, I now, work in an all male environment with mainly young men who see me as a mother figure.

    I've never been happier.