Why bad-mouthing your colleagues could actually hold you back at work

When we think of the ways women are put at a disadvantage at work, we tend to think of unfair salaries, being passed up for promotions, or sexual harassment.

The topic of bitching probably isn’t high on your radar, but hear us out.

In the UK it’s illegal to discriminate against someone due to their gender, and victims of this are able to seek recourse through an employment tribunal.

These laws offer a level of protection for workers, but we’re still a long way from equality of the sexes. Women are still paid 8.3% less than men, a reduction of around 0.5% over the last decade – hardly an improvement.

Despite this (albeit gradual) progress, though, workplace misogyny hasn’t gone away. Instead, it’s taken on a new form – one that flies under the radar and is arguably more insidious as a result.

Recruitment company CareerWallet found in a recent survey that 24% of women experience inappropriate comments in the workplace (or remotely via zoom and email) from managers and colleagues – more than double the figure for men.

Further research by Irwin Mitchell revealed that a quarter of women have been actively ignored by their manager, not received feedback, or have purposely had information withheld from them.

Because of the pervasive nature of a toxic working culture, it can be hard to pinpoint specific issues, especially when there’s an accumulation of smaller transgressions.

Like the tale of the frog in the boiling pot, backbiting and bullying can gradually become normal for an employee. And it’s not always to your face – sometimes comments are made behind your back.

Since it seems like people only get ahead when they’re part of the ‘clique’, harmful behaviours are emulated and allowed to flourish.

However, even when women try to play the game and conform to the social mores they see around them, they’re judged differently to men who do the same.

In other words, those catty comments you’ve made about a co-worker could actually hold you back.

The double edged sword of ‘office gossip’

Gossip and the odd moan are par for the course in most workplaces and across genders. The difference lies in how these behaviours are perceived.

Men are praised for showing qualities like assertiveness or even aggression, while women are seen as less competent. There’s also a stereotype that women are ‘chatty’ and talk too much, despite the opposite being true (women’s contributions to conversations are actually overestimated).

In research by Cambridge University, more than half of women said female colleagues were judged more negatively than their male counterparts when exhibiting the same behaviours. On the contrary, less than one in five men noticed this happening to their female workmates.

This represents a ‘double-bind’ for women: we’re told to lean in and get involved in company culture, but are penalised when we do so.

Women receive ‘negative personality criticism’, such as being called bossy or told to ‘watch their tone’ in around 75% of performance reviews (men, on the other hand, rarely do). They also receive 2.5 times more feedback than men do about ‘aggressive communication styles’, and are called ‘abrasive’ far more often.

Words like cliquey, bitchy, domineering, bossy, temperamental, or emotional are implicitly gendered too, while women of colour are subject to the ‘angry Black woman’ stereotype.

And we can be just as guilty of holding these misogynistic prejudices as men.

Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, told People Management: ‘It’s not surprising to see women judging other women almost as harshly as men do. Women internalise misogyny and patriarchal norms and then replicate those attitudes and behaviours.’

The impact of conflict at work

On a personal level, badmouthing colleagues is likely to get you a reputation as untrustworthy and can harm your career, although this all depends on what’s deemed acceptable in your workplace.

A culture that ignores or promotes conflict, however, can be especially damaging for a business.

Craig Bines, CEO of CareerWallet, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Office culture is key for businesses and a negative culture can impact growth, profit, recruitment, staff turnover and retention.

‘Office gossip can often be the catalyst for a negative culture and can be extremely damaging for firms.’

According to CIPD, women report three of the four top impacts of conflict (stress, anxiety and a loss of self-confidence) at a higher rate than men, suggesting they are less likely to feel they work in ‘psychologically safe’ environments.

We know that women make up over half of the UK workforce, and we know that unhappy staff are less productive and more likely to leave. So what’s not adding up?

As female employees are more likely to look for another job after bullying or harassment at work, businesses may not have a full picture. Rather than go through the rigmarole of trying to change things, the worker moves on to pastures new and their boss is none the wiser at what went wrong.

‘Often the issues are so deep rooted within a workplace, it’s hard to imagine a world in which women can overcome the hurdles placed in front of them by men,’ Confidence and Mindset Coach, Hattie MacAndrews, tells Metro.co.uk.

‘A lack of awareness perpetuates bad behaviour, and an unwillingness to change will keep battling against the same issues time and time again.’

Staying out of it

It’s difficult to break free of societal biases on an individual basis, particularly if it’s a fundamental part of your workplace’s culture.

Company-wide, there should be policies in place to prevent negative attitudes spreading. ACAS recommends an up-to-date equality policy, regular anti-discrimination training, a clear path for complaints, and regular one-to-ones between employees and managers to build positive relationships.

Managers must lead by example, as if they’re seen to be engaging in hostile behaviours, staff will not only follow but feel unable to speak up if they’re the victim.

Women at work – whatever their level of seniority – have an added task: navigating the tightrope of leadership and likability.

Even if your office encourages water cooler chat, it’s important to keep comments positive. It’s not fair that men don’t have to do the same, but it’ll stop you being associated with the office rumour mill.

Mean Girls’ Ms Norbury advised her students: ‘You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores.’

The same rules apply here.

Taking notes can also be beneficial in helping you spot patterns of behaviour.

Hattie says: ‘I always advise taking note of any situations in which women feel discriminated against, in order to join the dots and formulate a strategic plan of action…

‘Talk to other women, talk to your colleagues and do your best to understand the structure of the organisation. When you’re ready, you can calmly (and logically) present your case, with proof of discrimination, and the impact it has had on you or your performance at work.

‘Approach the problem like you would any other problem – calmly, logically and with evidence to back up your story.’

You may think you’re playing the boys at their own game with character assassinations and jokes at others’ expense. But it’s a game you’ll never win, and one that’ll get the better of you if you’re not careful.

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