Why Women Get Criticized for Being Candid at Work

The stereotype of the "catty" female boss can, to some, make giving constructive feedback seem like an act of spite.

Paul Sahre

This article is a response to Olga Khazan’s Atlantic article “Why Do Women Bully Each Other at Work?

Olga Khazan’s recent article “Why Do Women Bully Each Other at Work?” examines women’s workplace relationships and includes several firsthand accounts from female professionals of being undermined or verbally assaulted by female superiors. As researchers who have studied these dynamics, we couldn’t help but notice that, save for one example of a young employee at a consulting firm who found herself begrudging a colleague her six-week maternity leave, all of Khazan’s interview subjects told their stories from the perspective of a junior staffer stung by a senior one.

Which led us to wonder: Is it possible that gender-based expectations make it difficult for more-senior women to provide constructive criticism to their female reports?

At least part of the “queen bee” label Khazan discusses (and critiques)—a label often assigned, fairly or not, to female bosses considered to be “catty” or “bitchy”—emerges from biased interpretations of women’s behavior. Consider Shannon, the lawyer interviewed by Khazan who in one breath describes a female partner as being passive-aggressive, and in the next recalls a time when the same partner told her, in a strikingly non-passive-aggressive way, to be more confident. Shannon uses these examples to illustrate a problematic relationship, but could it be that one woman’s criticism is another woman’s attempt at mentoring?

This reminded us of a story related by Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In: Sandberg once listened in shock as a junior woman, to whom she considered herself a mentor, claimed to never have had anyone looking out for her career. When Sandberg pressed the junior woman on how she defined mentorship, she concluded that the woman expected not a mentor but a therapist.

In a paper published in 2014 in the Journal of Management, we proposed that women’s workplace relationships with one another are subject to two stereotypes—one that describes how they’re believed to act and one that prescribes how they should act. The first suggests that women’s relationships with each other are fraught with tension and “cattiness.” The second dictates that they should be nurturing and supportive of each other. These stereotypes put women in a bind: If they mentor their junior counterparts, as Sandberg says she did, that guidance can go unnoticed because it’s what they’re expected to provide anyway. But the moment they make a firm demand or give critical feedback to a younger colleague, they risk being labeled a queen bee.

These stereotypes also shape women’s unrealistic expectations of other women: If one subscribes to the first stereotype, she enters the workplace expecting women to be her worst enemies, whereas if she subscribes to the second stereotype—as many feminists appear to—she expects consistent and unquestioning support from other women. The standards to which women in positions of power are then held are nearly impossible to meet while fulfilling the requirements of their jobs—among the most important of which is holding colleagues accountable for their performance regardless of their gender.

Supporting the theory we laid out in that 2014 piece, one of us (Leah) has a working paper demonstrating that, in a hypothetical scenario, a woman who criticizes the job performance of a junior woman is viewed by both male and female research subjects as jealous and threatened by her junior colleague—a finding that does not emerge when either employee is a man. In another study, women said they’d feel more let down by a hypothetical workplace scenario in which they imagined a woman acting toward them in an unsupportive way, compared to when they imagined a male coworker doing the same; men reacted similarly regardless of the critical colleague’s gender.

These results suggest that the same workplace behavior is judged differently when it involves two women, compared to two men or one man and one woman. This conclusion is bolstered anecdotally among Khazan’s interviewees. “Many women told me that men had undermined them as well,” she writes, “but it somehow felt different—worse—when it happened at the hands of a woman, a supposed ally.”

In any discussion of the queen-bee stereotype, it’s important to note the implications of believing that professional women undermine each other because their work environments are male-dominated, as some research cited in Khazan’s article suggests they do. From that belief follows the problematic conclusion that if only an organization could become more egalitarian, its female employees would revert to their supposedly natural feminine state of being warm and supportive—a stereotype that is just as constricting as any other.

Indeed, women shouldn’t be expected to nurture others more than men, and they’re no less entitled to criticizing and challenging their colleagues. In conversations about women’s relationships with one another at work, it’s important to keep this in mind before labeling anyone too harsh or competitive.