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Survival of the Fittest?

For decades, a flurry of academic, institutional, and governmental activity has openly embraced the concept of women standing shoulder-to-shoulder in their effort to open new doors in a male-dominated world.

From the memorable Persons Case in 1939, to the recognition of illustrious Olympic gold medalists, award-winning scientists, bestselling authors, and national leaders, women have praised the hard work of ambitious female pioneers who paved the way for greater gender equality in Canada.

In that light, and with the number of women in the labour force at record numbers, it would be expected to also see mutual appraisal and recognition abound among successful women in all fields and professions.

However, recent studies reveal that the reality quite another. Contrary to common perception, when it comes to career-advanceent, women are sometimes their own worst enemies.

Discrimination and harassment towards women in the workplace has been widely documented as a growing concern. A recent Leger Marketing poll, commissioned by the Queen’s School of Business, reveals that workplace harassment, especially towards women, is very much a part of the modern day office environment. The survey, completed last March using a sample of 1505 participants, revealed that 57 per cent of Canadians have experienced or witnessed harassment in the workplace. Of that percentage, an astounding 87 per cent of victims are women.

However, an additional fact that often escapes the estimates is that, although men in a position of power continue to personify the typical face of workplace harassment, women are twice as likely to report that this abuse came from another woman rather than a man. In addition, not only female bullies tend to disproportionately choose other female colleagues as targets, but they also tend to prey on above-average female workers.

In an interview for The Financial Post, Jana Raver, organizational behaviour expert and associate professor at the Queen’s School of Business, pointed to a clear contradiction in regards to this alarming statistic. “This is somewhat surprising,” Raver said. “In some ways it goes along with what you hear colloquially, but on the other hand people are saying, ‘shouldn’t women be supporting each other?’”

While current research has not delved into the reasons why women tend to single out other women for harassment, part of the cause of this puzzling behaviour relates to their reduced opportunities in the labour market.

It would only be fair to expect that, after decades of social transformation, women would have joined by now their male counterparts in the upper echelons of Canadian corporations. Yet, according to research conducted by Catalyst, a non-profit organization that studies women in the workplace, while women constitute 47.7 per cent of the Canadian workforce, they hold only 17.7 per cent of senior office positions, and fewer than six per cent of these companies’ CEO positions. In addition, more than 30 per cent of companies in the study have no women senior officers.

Constantly worried about losing their place in an increasingly competitive “work race”— or maybe even about getting into the race at all—female professionals have sometimes grown fearful, suspicious, or envious of equally competent same-sex colleagues, especially as they climb to senior positions.As youthful colleagues begin their onerous ascent up the corporate ladder, senior professionals, guarding their hard-earned jobs, use their honed in skills and years of experience to pull down the ladder right behind them.

According to Dr. Gary Namie, co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, this behaviour is intensified in industries and professions that remain largely dominated by men, as “women feel the need to be hyper-aggressive to get ahead in a male-dominated environment.” Buying into the widespread perception of men as traditionally powerful and assertive in the workplace, which make them difficult targets, women are perceived as vulnerable and easier to bully.  According to Phyllis Chesler, author of the book Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, like men, they are also exposed to the misogynistic and sexist messages that permeate society, and unconsciously buy into gender-based stereotypes. This can elicit abuse and mistreatment of other women.

Why hasn’t this behaviour been properly documented? Workplace harassment in Canada takes a more covert and tacit form when inflicted by a woman than by a man. Often, incidents of harassment between women go unreported as they encompass more latent forms of aggression, including upsetting and unwelcome comments, secrecy and gossip, badmouthing colleagues,  creating favouritisms, or simply choosing not to help a co-worker advance within a company. According to Dr. Namie, female bullies sabotage the careers of other women by being unsupportive. While some tactically avoid helping other women in their careers, others can resort to passive-aggressive behaviour to protect their own interests.

This is not to say that there is no way out of such an inhealthy trend. The answer lies with the upcoming generations. For over 100 years, McGill University has educated outstanding women professionals. Joining the ranks of the most illustrious Canadians, these McGillians have inspired succeeding generations to live up to their example in just about every field imaginable. In every department, McGill’s female students have joined their male counterparts in the pursuit of higher education, oftentimes outnumbering them. As these women venture out into the labour force, taking their first steps in pursuit of their professional ambitions, they must not forget that it was through mutual support that women came to break insurmountable barriers to their advancement in the past. It is through mutual support as well that they will be able to overcome obstacles in the future.

 

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