Who would have thought that in my mid-50’s, I’d be back on the playground dealing with mean girls? Didn’t we leave all that behind in middle school?
During my school days I was a shy little girl, with uncontrollably frizzy hair, crazily crooked teeth, and a name that invited humiliating nicknames. I was prime bully bait.
Wizened by ample experiences on the receiving end, I counseled my young daughters when they were hurt by an injustice. “Don’t take it personally,” I told them. “Bullies’ behavior says more about them than about you.” And, realizing an opportunity ripe for the picking, I added, “Now that you know how it feels, you must never, ever do the same to anyone.”
I hoped that I had helped them get a leg up on what, sadly, is an inevitable part of childhood.
As an adult, I am drawn to women who are supportive, kind and emotionally generous. By a stroke of luck, my department colleagues in the Seattle institution where I worked for 25 years were no different. We shared weddings, births, deaths, and (oh yeah!) work during the years we spent together. Our boss included personal sharing time as an agenda item in every staff meeting. On September 11, 2001, I stumbled into my office late, having watched news reports of the towers collapsing in my hometown of New York City. My co-workers met me at the door with hugs, inquiring about my family and friends. This was more than just a staff. These were women who cared about each other both in and out of the office.
One of the reasons I stayed in my job as long as I did was because of them. The job supported my family and I cared deeply about my work. But if I had to spend days away from my young children, a safe and trusting workplace was priceless. Whenever I pondered a change, friends’ stories about toxic work environments convinced me to stay put.
Alas, I may have stayed too long.
In a weird workplace twist, when a new manager was installed after our boss of 22 years retired, the atmosphere in the office changed dramatically. It was as though someone had slipped a mean girl drug in the water cooler. People began whispering behind closed doors, something this group of women had never done before. One of my co-workers summed it up saying, “There’s a new sheriff in town. Watch your back.”
When two of my co-workers began setting me up, I felt the pain my daughters had so recently described. I will never understand exactly what happened or why. But that is the nature of bullying, right? It hits you from behind and catches you unaware. In my 50’s, in this particular situation, I was unable to heed my own advice and rise above the behavior. Every day became a struggle to survive and prove myself not guilty.
It came to a head on a Thursday afternoon, when one of my antagonists shouted and lunged at me threateningly in public. As she came toward me, all sounds faded away. My movements felt robotic. I experienced tunnel vision and thought I might faint. That evening I began to suffer a series of symptoms that resulted in a diagnosis of Acute Stress Disorder, necessitating a three-month medical leave to heal.
Mine was not a unique experience. Mickey Meece, in a May 2009 New York Times Article titled, Backlash: Women Bullying Women at Work, wrote about a private accountant in California who described being ostracized by two women in her firm, one of whom shoved her in the cafeteria. “It’s as if we’re back in high school,” the accountant said.
Women are fierce competitors. The very thing that causes women to protect children, friends, home and hearth comes out in the workplace when they feel threatened or want to improve their status. Is this what was happening in my office?
A study by Gary Namie, 2007 research director of the Workplace Bullying Institute (yes, there is actually such a place), found that most employers ignore the problem because of bottom line issues and the unlikeliness of litigation. There is no law regarding this type of bullying and costs are prohibitive for the victim.
And so, the bullies get away with their behavior.
In my case, an internal investigation, for which I was not interviewed, largely exonerated my assailants and concluded that I was complicit in the incident. Labor & Industry denied me benefits for lost work time and medical care because, according to the bureaucrats, my injury was mental and impossible to prove. When I returned to work following my three-month leave, many of my duties had been either eliminated or reassigned permanently and my homecoming was anything but welcoming.
I decided to fight. So much was wrong about this legally and ethically. I pored over 300 pages of public records documentation from the investigation, discovering false statements and inaccuracies. I had kept meticulous notes and records throughout the ordeal. I researched laws concerning situations like mine. I met with several lawyers, none of whom would take my case based on the size of the institution I was fighting. “It would be like going up to a big building and kicking it as hard as you can,” my husband said.
But every time I thought about letting it go, as well-meaning family and friends often encouraged me, something would come to light to bolster my resolve. The universe handed me regular gifts, encouraging me to keep up the fight. And I could not, would not back down when I knew I was right. It was exhausting and oftentimes lonely. But I was determined.
A year later, I won what I consider to be a huge victory considering what I was up against.
- • L&I reversed their decision, granting me the injury and retroactive benefits.
- • The institution was cited for a workplace injury.
- • I requested and received a layoff, which allowed me to continue receiving health insurance benefits.
- • Soon thereafter, the new manager resigned. Draw your own conclusions.
As satisfied as I was with my victory of sorts, it was bittersweet – much like the release of death after long, horrible illness.
Most disappointing for me was the involvement of the women colleagues I had known for so long. It defied everything I believed about them and about my gender. Women are by nature intuitive, compassionate and, regardless of education or degree, healers. When necessary, we are tenacious fighters for that which we hold dear. Powerful qualities when used for good. Treacherous when used for ill.
In her article, Female On Female Bullying In The Workplace Is On The Rise in The Grindstone, an online publication dealing with women’s workplace issues, Amanda Chatel wrote, “We owe it to ourselves to kick female on female bullying to the curb and to stand up for sisterhood in all its forms. You would not be where you are today if another woman didn’t pave the way for you.”
My generation saw Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan champion the women’s movement. My grandmothers’ peers were suffragettes. We have fought long and hard to get to where we are as women and should not be tearing each other down, but building each other up and continuing our climb. We can, and should, compete, but in a way that is healthy and positive.
Here’s to the women: the mothers, the sisters, the aunts, the daughters. Here’s to the gender that bears the fruit of the next generation. Here’s to linking arms and showing the world a better way.