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Work is a battlefield: new study reveals high rates of female-on-female workplace incivility

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Allison Gabriel is the Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations for the Eller College of Management.

With the national spotlight firmly pointed on the harassment female employees endure in the workplace, a new study reveals that women report a higher level of workplace incivility from other women than from men.

The study, entitled “Further Understanding Incivility in the Workplace: The Effects of Gender, Agency, and Communion,” looks closer at the phenomena of women in high-status jobs discriminating against their female coworkers, also known as “Queen Bee Syndrome.”

“We found consistently that women, across the three studies, said that they had more mistreatment from other women than men,” said Allison Gabriel, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the Eller College of Management and one of the co-authors of the study.

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Gabriel and her co-authors, Marcus Butts from Southern Methodist University, Zhenyu Yuan of the University of Iowa, Rebecca Rosen of Indiana University and Michael Sliter of FurstPerson Consulting, were interested in studying the common incivilities experienced in the day-to-day lives of employees.

“I always had a very strong, negative reaction to incivility, even things as simple as people not saying ‘thank you,’ and wondered if other people experienced the same thing,”             Sliter said.

The project consisted of three separate studies during which the researchers would administer surveys to employees working in a variety of fields in the United States. 

In the first study, they gave only one survey. In the second and third studies they gave two surveys, with a period of a few weeks in between, to see if the reported feelings remained consistent over time.

The employees were asked to compare and rate their experience with incivility between their male and female colleagues, as well as report how frequent instances were. The researchers then compared the ratings.

Across the three studies a common theme emerged: women reported more incivility from their female coworkers than from their male coworkers. Male employers reported no significant difference in incivility from either gender.

The researchers also found that women who acted outside of traditional female gender norms, and also acted more assertive and dominant, were more likely to be mistreated by their female coworkers.

Conversely, men who deviated from gender expectations and acted more warm, gentle and helpful reported lower levels of workplace incivility. 

“We were pretty shocked by that finding,” Gabriel said.

In the first study, 422 people were surveyed, with 75 percent of the participants being female. The second study consisted of 608 people, 65 percent of them female. The third study had 410 participants, 53 percent of them female.

The first two studies were funded by Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis and the Eller College of Management funded the final study.

“I feel like Eller, in particular, has been so supportive of women in the workplace,” Gabriel said. “I feel pretty fortunate that a lot of my research I’ve gotten interested in because it was something I’ve directly experienced … in this case this evolved more out of an interest I was hearing about it in the popular press.”

Eller takes specific steps to encourage civility in the workplace. Undergraduate students complete a core management course, taught by Gabriel, that prepares students to enter the workplace. 

Eller also works to lessen the gap between male and female faculty members.

“Women in business schools have long been underrepresented,” said Amy Schmitz, assistant dean for Eller’s marketing and communications. “Dean [Paulo] Goes … recognized that this was going to be a crucial thing to focus on, and so really did make an effort to make sure we were recruiting female faculty after they came out of their Ph.D. programs.”

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The study will be published in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology. 

Corporations might use these findings to improve their workplace environments. According to Gabriel, workplace incivility leads to lower rates of job satisfaction and decreased performance, as well as an increased likelihood of quitting.

Between the lost revenue from decreased performance and the costs of replacing lost employees, Gabriel said workplace incivility can cost corporations an estimated $14,000 per employee.

“I think what all of this is signaling is that we just need to be comfortable having very open dialogues about our experiences in the workplace,”    Gabriel said.

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