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Why women are rude to other women at work and how to deal

Women who are assertive and outspoken are particularly vulnerable to incivility from other women.
Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep in \"The Devil Wears Prada.\"Everett Collection
/ Source: TODAY

Men can make the workplace miserable for women, as countless #MeToo stories attest. Then, there are other women.

In a new interview with InStyle magazine, actress Jennifer Aniston revealed she's been "treated worse verbally and energetically by some women" than men in her industry.

In fact, women report more rudeness from their female coworkers than male colleagues, a study recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found. Women who were assertive and outspoken were particularly vulnerable to incivility from other women, becoming targets of snarky comments, being ignored or excluded, or being treated disrespectfully.

Lead author and organizational psychologist Allison Gabriel said she knows many women who have experienced such mistreatment at work.

“Women, rather than building each other up and helping — sometimes we tear each other down,” Gabriel, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the University of Arizona, told TODAY.

“It’s problematic. We found that women who reported this type of incivility from other women were more likely to say that they were unsatisfied at work… it can also be reflected in their emotional well-being.”

For the study, Gabriel and her team surveyed hundreds of employed people about their experiences at work, their interactions with colleagues and their job satisfaction.

Over and over, they found women were more likely to experience incivility from other women than men. Women who strayed from “stereotypical gender norms” — those who were assertive, took charge, delegated or spoke up, “behaviors we view as being characteristic of good leadership,” Gabriel pointed out — were more vulnerable to rudeness from female coworkers than women who showed sympathy, complimented others or smiled, the study found.

Why do women do this to each other?

One part of it is that women often view other women as their competition at work, Gabriel said: “So rather than me comparing myself to my male counterparts when it comes to things like raises or promotions, I’m more likely to compare myself to other women.”

It’s also possible that breaking those “stereotypical gender norms” provokes incivility from other women, the study notes. Women are supposed to be “nurturing, kind, sweet,” so when they’re more assertive, other women have a hard time accepting that, said Erika Holiday, a licensed clinical psychologist in Studio City, California, and co-author of “Mean Girls, Meaner Women: Understanding Why Women Backstab, Betray and Trash Talk Each Other and How to Heal.”

Another explanation is that women often feel it’s “safer” to take out their aggression on other women than on men, Holiday added.

How to deal if you’re the target of rudeness:

Speak up: If you feel safe, often, the best thing to do is to directly confront the offender, both Gabriel and Holiday advised. She may not be aware of how her behavior is being construed. You can start the conversation by saying, “Hey, I noticed I wasn’t included in this meeting — was there a reason for that? Is there something I could be doing? I’m concerned about our relationship.”

If you don’t feel safe confronting your rude coworker — perhaps because you fear retaliation — and you believe the incivility is impacting your work or is abusive, you can report it to a supervisor.

Deal with it in the moment: If you’re comfortable, it’s best to call out the offending behavior as it happens because when you hold something inside, it just stews and gets worse, Holiday said. But if you need time to think and figure out what you’re going to say, that’s fine, too, as long as you’re dealing with the problem.

Be direct and honest: Men do this with each other all the time, Holiday pointed out. “If a man has a problem with another man, he walks up to him and says, ‘Bro, what’s going on?’” she noted. Women are often much more indirect, going behind a coworker’s back and gossiping. Don’t be that person, Holiday advised. You can say, “I’ve heard you’ve been saying this and I don’t like it. Let’s talk about how we can work together so that there’s no conflict between us. How can we collaborate on resolving this issue?”

Don’t take things personally: “I say that women are master ruminators. We obsess about things... men have a much easier time letting things go,” Holiday said. Practice redirecting your thoughts and moving on.

Realize that most of the time, it’s not about you; it’s about the other person: When people feel good about themselves, they have no interest in putting another person down, Holiday noted.

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How not to be the rude coworker

“We need to stop viewing each other as sources of competition,” Gabriel noted. If you see a coworker stepping up and speaking up, support her. Think about: How can I get involved? How can that benefit everybody?

If you’re the source of rudeness in your office, dig deep and ask yourself what’s going on inside of you that makes you feel like you need to attack another woman, Holiday advised.

“It’s really being more mindful and being aware of what kind of person you are and want to be in this world,” she said.

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