Q: I work in an elementary school with predominantly female teachers. Some of the ones I work in close quarters with enjoy gossiping about female colleagues. I do not partake in the “girl talk.”
Several women have gotten very catty, being rude and condescending to me. It has started to make my job, which I love, stressful. I wake up dreading the day ahead.
I thought about discussing these issues with the principal, but the principal is close with a major member of the clique. I also fear the school will not keep me if I start complaining. Other women refuse to speak up for the same reason.
I started eating lunch with the few male teachers here. To my knowledge, they don’t gossip about other teachers.
In an age when women are celebrating sisterhood, I am upset that some feel the need to bring other women down. It feels as if I am back in high school, with the cafeteria hierarchy. Is there anything I can do to make the social situation bearable?
A: Shockingly, my first recommendation is not to make this about gender.
Characterizing bad behavior as “catty” or “girl talk” isn’t just facile stereotyping. It also makes that behavior easier to dismiss and diminish. Even “gossip” doesn’t convey the enormity of engaging in slander or violation of privacy — and the term tends to be applied indiscriminately to every water-cooler confab between women even though, yes, men do it, too. I understand the temptation to buzz about queen B’s — but remember, your sample size skews “predominantly female.” And as you point out, other women at your workplace share your concerns.
So let’s shed the gender-loaded terms and call this toxic behavior by its name: bullying.
Bullying is perpetrated by insecure people — of all sexes, ages, races and faiths — against people they consider a threat to their success and status. Bullies tend to go with whatever weapon, subtle or overt, seems most effective: physical intimidation, rumors, verbal abuse, ostracism.
But you and like-minded colleagues can make your environment inhospitable to bullying. Offer colleagues (even the “mean” ones) friendly words, help and kudos for their achievements. When someone pitches trash talk, bunt it away with a change of subject or a kind word about the intended target. When someone is rude to you, respond as you see fit: Shrug it off, crack a joke, or play it straight and explain, as though you have no idea what was intended, that you found that comment hurtful.
Unfortunately, defeating workplace bullying depends largely on the employer’s willingness to address the problem — unlikely if the top brass supports or fears the ringleaders. But the warmer and more supportive your environment is, the more bullies will be exposed as outliers, and the more leverage you and your coalition will have if you need to escalate the matter.
PRO TIP: The Workplace Bullying Institute offers research, coaching and other resources for identifying and combating such bullying.
Ask Karla Miller about your work dramas and traumas by emailing email@example.com.