“Mean Girl” Myth BUSTED- Experts Examine Why Women Don’t Get Along at Work

A persistent cultural meme insists that the greatest threat to professional women is other women—backstabbing, conniving “queen bees” and “mean girls.” Hogwash, say the coauthors of IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S THE WORKPLACE: Women’s Conflict at Work and the Bias That Built It , who investigated these stereotypes using surveys, social science research, and interviews. Conclusion: there’s no evidence that there’s more conflict at the office between women than there is between men or between different genders.


To address this misconception, authors Harris and Kramer reframe the issue, showing that it’s not about how women behave, but about the structure of workplaces, which tend to make female employees feel like outliers. In fact, the authors report, women tend to be much more concerned about their intragender workplace relationships, and thus, more distressed when conflict occurs. Bringing in relevant insights from intersectionality theory, Harris and Kramer discuss how to have better conversations about “identity biases,” such as those that might involve race or sexual orientation, with one tip being to remember that “your aim should be to understand, not to demonstrate you are a good person.” The cumulative result of their work is a refreshing, well-timed rebuttal to a hackneyed old fiction that blames individual women for the institutional biases they face.


Author Interview

In IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S THE WORKPLACE, you tackle this common notion that women can’t seem to get along with other women at work. Is there any truth to this statement? 

Women certainly think there is a problem. The real issue is why women seem to have such difficulty establishing strong, mutually supportive same gender relationships at work. Based on our social science research along with both our own proprietary study and our hundreds of interviews with professional women across the country, we found that women are not inherently antagonistic toward other women. In fact, the opposite is true, women are far more likely to want to be supportive of other women. 

Are women’s workplace conflicts different from men?

Women do have conflict at work. Some of their conflicts are the same as men’s conflicts – tensions, disagreements, hostilities- and some are distinctive conflicts. But the distinctive same-gender conflict is not because women are inherently mean spirited towards other women but because they are navigating highly gendered workplaces, workplace led and controlled by men and dominated by masculine norms, values, and expectations. Being an “outgroup” having to fight for advancement when they have fewer opportunities and resources than the men sets up conflict between women. It is our opinion, women/women conflict is much more about the workplace than the women. 

What is a gendered workplace? 

A gendered workplace is a workplace where career advancement largely depends on being “like” the people that hold the power, the “ingroup”. Since in most cases today, this is men, it means women and men are not dealt with, evaluated, compensated, or promoted in the same ways. Women are subject to the stereotypes and biases held by the ingroup. Women and men may have similar educational backgrounds and may start their careers with similar ambitions, abilities, and expectations. But because women are a distinct outgroup in gendered workplaces, they experience more formidable career advancement obstacles than do men. Their opportunities for career-enhancing assignments, projects, and responsibilities are far more limited than men’s, and their ability to achieve a satisfactory balance between their careers and their personal lives is far more difficult than it is for men. 

Do you know the percentage of workplaces in U.S. that are “gendered”?

That is hard to survey precisely, but it is safe to say most. 

How can women overcome the biases in gendered workplaces and succeed?

Gendered workplaces can be difficult to navigate even for the most talented, hardworking, and ambitious women. But by being aware of the biases that exist and how they manifest themselves in and by then embracing a combination of attitudes and impression management techniques, women can avoid or overcome the potentially career-destroying pressures of gendered workplaces.  We talk a lot about this in our first book, Breaking Through Bias, but fundamentally it is a combination of grit, a positive perspective, and a coping sense of humor coupled with a variety of communication techniques that women can use to overcome or avoid these biases that can derail their careers. 

You talk about the “sisterhood” in In IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S THE WORKPLACE. If you’re feeling isolated at work, how can you find or build this “sisterhood”?

While sisterhood can be spontaneous and ad hoc, an effective and sustained workplace sisterhood depends on some sort of purposeful association, network, or community of women. It is important to note that sisterhood is quite different than friendship. A sisterhood involves nothing more than the recognition that when women work together, rather than competitively, they are a stronger, more effective force for their mutual advancement. Sisterhood is about mutual support, not intimacy; cooperation, not confidences; shared purpose, not shared feelings. Professional sisterhoods can be under the umbrella of professional networks, affinity groups, employee resource groups (ERGs), or commercial networks. 

When looking to find or build a productive sisterhood, think about focusing on outcome over output. Output offers services to individual members that purportedly will help them advance in their careers. Outcome seeks to make systemic changes that broadly remove career disparities. Don’t limit yourself- look beyond your organization to your broad network, absolutely seek out a mentor, and carefully assess how you can better stand up for other women.  If a woman is interrupted or ignored in a meeting, don’t let it pass. You can build a sisterhood one woman at a time. 

Let’s talk about some of the biases you discuss as being present in gendered workplaces. Let’s start with, Affinity Bias. Can you help explain what this is, how it affects women and how to overcome it?

People tend to be drawn to, want to associate with, and seek to provide support for people who are like them. In other words, people tend to favor other people with whom they have an affinity. Within all gendered workplaces, affinity bias operates to divide participants into an ingroup and one or more outgroups. The ingroup consists of the members of the management team and those who are like them, which means the ingroup is often white, male, able-bodied, and heterosexual.

Affinity bias does not mean that male managers consciously think that women cannot do particular jobs, are not as competent as men, or lack men’s leadership potential. It operates simply by virtue of the fact that most men prefer to work with, hang out with, coach, mentor, and sponsor other men. They find doing so to be easy, conflict free, and efficient. As a result, without even being aware of their favoritism, male managers often simply don’t invite women to join teams, work on high-visibility projects, or participate in informal social activities. 

Overcoming affinity bias utilizing similar techniques to those we outline above to avoid or overcome gender bias. First, awareness that affinity bias is likely at play helps make sense of some of what women experience in seeking to advance in their careers. It is also important to use impression management—the conscious effort to shape or change others’ impressions of you. In this case it means using impression management to be accepted by the” ingroup” as someone they recognize as competent and with whom they can easily relate.

And Affinity Bias is different from Gender Bias? 

Yes. With gender bias, people ascribe behavioral characteristics to men and women. Typically, women are assumed to be—and thought they should be—communal: pleasant, caring, and modest; and men are assumed to be—and thought they should be— agentic: decisive, competitive, and forceful. And, of course, common stereotypes suggest that leaders are decisive, competitive, and forceful. Therefore, common, pervasive societal stereotypes operate to identify men as natural leaders and women as their assistants and helpmates. 

Gender bias is likely to be particularly strong in gendered workplaces where it works in tandem with affinity bias to deliver a one-two punch to women’s career advancement prospects. Women are seen both as different from members of the ingroup and as less competent, ambitious, and competitive than ingroup members. 

How does what you’ve found relate to the #MeToo movement? Have things really changed since the 1950s perception of woman at work?

Certainly women have made important gains but they still lag far behind men in virtually all major leadership roles. The statistics are all too familiar. 

What is also discouraging is that a recent Boston Consulting Group study found that men age 45 and older, that is, those commonly with decision-making authority in corporate environments, generally fail to appreciate the obstacles that women face in hiring, retention, and advancement. Indeed, only 25 percent of older heterosexual white men see unique obstacles for women in the workplace. We have also seen discouraging studies involving Millennial men who exhibit significant biases about working for or with women. The road for ambitious women is still hard and there is no evidence that we will age out of it with the upcoming generation of leaders. 

Specifically, with regards to #MeToo, although an important movement for giving women their “voice”, there has been some unfortunate backlash. A 2018 survey by Leanin.Org found that since the start of the #MeToo movement; almost half of male managers are becoming uncomfortable participating in common work activities with women such as mentoring, working alone, traveling, and socializing together. With so many more male than female managers, when men avoid, ignore, or exclude women from interpersonal exchanges, women lose access to leaders, mentorship and sponsorship opportunities at all stages of their careers.

So short answer, yes and no.

In IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S THE WORKPLACE, you also explore gender norms that put women into “stereotype straitjackets.” What are gender ‘norms’ for women? How they operate in gendered workplaces?

As we discussed above, people generally think women should be communal—that is, unselfish, friendly, modest, deferential, empathetic, cooperative, and concerned with others. By contrast, people generally think men should be agentic— that is, independent, assertive, forceful, unemotional, decisive, competitive, and risk-taking. Communal and agentic characteristics are often (incorrectly) believed to be nonoverlapping, contrasting qualities, so people generally think women should not be agentic and men should not be communal. Those are gender norms.

The issue is that in today’s gendered workplaces, the typically espoused definition of leader is aligned with male norms. The “stereotype straitjacket” is the bind women are in when they want to establish themselves as capable leaders. If a woman behaves agentically, she is often shunned by both men and women, but if she behaves in line with the gender norms, she is not seen as a talented, capable leader.  

Gender isn’t the whole story! Can you share a few quick points on how social identity in the workplace plays out for: LGBQ? Immigrants? African- Americans? Asian-Americans? Older women? Younger women? Mothers?

This is a fascinating part of our findings.  Women have many distinct identities that intersect with their gender to create what are now called intersectionalities. Women with differing intersectionalities can face significantly different stereotype-driven obstacles to their career advancement in gendered workplaces. These intersectionalities include all the groups you mentioned in your question and more. It is about the group with which you are classified. And each of these groups have stereotypes assigned to them; African-American women are this way, Asian women are that way, Indian women do this, Millennial women do that, older woman aren’t good at that, women with a differing sexual identity want this, mothers of young children expect that. 

When looking to create or develop stronger relationships with women with differing intersecting identities, remember we are all influenced by stereotypes and the biases that flow from them. Understanding the different and often conflicting stereotypes about women who are different from you can provide you with powerful information to build stronger workplace relationships. We all need allies. Reach out to women who are not like you and listen. 

IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S THE WORKPLACE is great in identifying many of the underlying factors going on in the gendered workplace but it also goes one step further—what can we do to make things better. Individually, what are some basic steps to help change the current scenario?

Each topic above addresses what we can each do to make things better. That is a big focus of the book. We end each chapter with exactly that. Fundamentally it is about being aware of the stereotypes and biases that permeate all of our thinking and from there, having techniques to help us avoid or overcome them. Both of our books do this in different but related arenas. And your question is right- it is a two-pronged issue. What can we each do and what can organizations do?

What can organizations do to attack workplace bias?

This is a complex issue and the last full chapter of the book tackles this exact issue. In a summary, we would say it is imperative that organizations recognize the existence of both gender and affinity bias. They are at the root of our gendered workplaces. Education and training have their place and we also fully espouse Daniel Kahneman’s notion of slow thinking as well as the concept of blind auditions in order to reduce the effects of bias. 

Directly related to this book, women will always have workplace conflicts with other women, just as men will always have workplace conflicts with other men. But, if the affinity and gender biases inherent in gendered workplaces are remedied—and women have the essential but difficult conversations with other women about their Identity biases—we believe we will be able to stop talking about women’s distinctive, same-gender conflicts and focus simply on quickly resolving the interpersonal conflicts that all of us have. Here, we can create workplaces that focus simply on talent and not group identity and associated biases that hold women back. 



Andrea S. Kramer (Andie) and Alton B. Harris (Al) are distinguished attorneys, married to each other, and co-authors of Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work (Bibliomotion, May 2016). For decades, Andie and Al have tackled gender bias in the workplace through speaking, workshops, articles, blog posts, podcasts, one-on-one counselling, and engagements with national and international business and professional organizations. They have appeared in The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Huffington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Fast Company, Crain’s, and many other publications. They provide practical techniques that women, men, and organizations can use to prevent the gender stereotypes and the biases that flow from them from slowing down or derailing women’s careers.