Skip to main content

Mean Women: Female Bullies and Relational Aggression

In my personal experience with narcissistic abuse, I've found that education is my best weapon.

Learn how grown-up bullies operate and how you can protect yourself from them.

Learn how grown-up bullies operate and how you can protect yourself from them.

Why Are Some Women So Mean to Each Other?

Some women don't play by the rules. Many times, though, we realize this only in hindsight. We assume her warm overtures are genuine, so we extend our friendship and trust. However, instead, she betrays us, often at great personal and professional cost. We may wonder what happened and why we didn't see it coming.

But we shouldn't be too hard on ourselves. Some women haven't left behind the childish games they learned on the playground in elementary school.

From Mean Girls to Mean Women

Little has changed as they've gotten older, except they've become much better at bullying others, under the radar. They've become masters at creating chaos without tipping anyone off, except the unfortunate victim who's still pinching herself to see if this really happened and wondering if anyone else would believe what she's just experienced.

A few social scientists are now beginning to study and publish ground-breaking work on adult female bullies, because, for too long, most people assumed they didn't exist.

Relational Aggression Is Another Word for Bullying

Women who want to discredit another woman use what's known as “relational aggression.” This is just a fancy term for bullying. They operate under the cover of darkness to spread malicious lies about their adversary, who usually hasn't done anything wrong. Or they may include a grain of truth in their accusations, and then blow it exponentially out of proportion.

In a group setting, bullies maneuver and manipulate to isolate the person they want to marginalize. For instance, they may host a series of cookouts or parties at their house, and invite everyone but their target. Others are forced to choose whether to excuse themselves, and possibly set themselves up to suffer the same fate, or join in the fun. (Most people will choose the latter.)

Women discredit rivals with gossip.

Women discredit rivals with gossip.

The Latest Research on Adult Female Bullying

Dr. Cheryl Dellasega, PhD., is an authority on the topic of relational aggression. She attempts to answer the question of why this happens in her book, Mean Girls Grown Up. This destructive behavior, she notes, occurs when women do not move beyond the roles they adopted in childhood.

This extremely disordered way of relating to others stays with them as they age. They continue to push people around in other settings. A very common venue is the workplace. But it can happen anywhere. Dr. Dellasega has even seen female bullies mark their turf in old age communities.

Bullies and the Bee Metaphor

  • Queen Bees: According to Dr. Dellasega, bullies are highly competitive “Queen Bee” types who command attention and demand respect.
  • Middle Bees: Queen Bees are often abetted by females known as “Middle Bees.” These "drones" assist her in doling out punishment. For instance, they may deliver messages back and forth, and they may feed the Queen with unsavory bits of gossip. Or they may participate in shunning the target.
  • Afraid-to-Bees: “Afraid-to-Bees” are the victims of these stings. These women can't stand up for themselves and they also lack social supports. Bullying is largely a crime of opportunity. It generally won't happen unless the aggressor finds a weak spot

The effects may be devastating if this plays out in a professional setting. An ongoing hate campaign, started by one Queen Bee, can destroy someone's career and livelihood.

Predators on the Job

Nearly 40 percent of corporate abusers are female, and most of the time, they pick on other women, according to figures supplied by the Workplace Bullying Institute, an advocacy group that's seeking to push legislation that would make this type of behavior illegal.

The European Union, right now, has much tougher laws when it comes to on-the-job bullying.

Employee bullying can rightly be called an epidemic because it affects more than one in three US workers at some time in their careers.

Most targets are powerless when a co-worker is hellbent on making life difficult, notes the WBI. That's because it's rare for anyone to come to a target's defense, since it means they could be putting their own jobs in jeopardy.

The outcome is predictable. Usually, the target is either fired or she quits under pressure. Attempting to take action, such as speaking with Human Resources staff, is largely useless. The WBI has found that only 3 percent of the time does the bullying get resolved in this manner.

How to Tell if You're a Target

It's not always easy to immediately know if you're being bullied, although the problem eventually reveals itself in a most dramatic fashion. You may not notice any overt hostility. If a woman is striking out, she's probably going to hit you socially.

If you work in an office with a group of other people, you may notice you're being excluded from important meetings you used to attend.

Every Wednesday, a group of co-workers may head to a restaurant during their lunch hour. Although they used to invite you along, they haven't done so lately.

You're also finding it more difficult to complete your work on time, because deadlines keep moving. There was a key report you needed to read, but no one will let you see it.

None of these incidents alone mean you're being bullied. Rather, it's the pattern of everything put together, along with a growing feeling of being uncomfortable in a certain setting. Bullying is defined as repeated incidents of harassment or aggression over a period of time.

Malignant Narcissism and Other Personality Disorders

There's a very good chance the woman causing you so much grief has a personality disorder such as malignant narcissism. Although we can't go around diagnosing people, it doesn't take an advanced degree to recognize someone who's disturbed.

Well-adjusted people don't relate to one another with aggression, whether it's out in the open or veiled. They are able to work productively and strive to resolve conflicts.

It might be useful to educate yourself on what psychologists consider unhealthy narcissism, so you can learn to protect yourself. People who suffer from narcissistic personality disorder are not grounded in reality. They also have a propensity to lie and to distort the truth. They are also lacking in their ability to empathize with others.

Oftentimes, they are charming and highly likable. People are drawn to their gregarious personalities. Narcissists are also prone to raging if their needs aren't met.

Protecting Yourself From Adult Bullies

The best protection is prevention. Read all you can about adult bullies, workplace bullying and malignant narcissism. This way you'll be able to exercise discretion, especially when you're first getting to know someone.

One red flag, I've noticed, is coming on too strong during the early stages of a friendship. For instance, someone you've just met may want to meet you for coffee, several times in one week.

It's best to develop relationships slowly. Don't trust anyone with sensitive information unless they've earned that trust. Be especially cognizant of sharing too much with people at work. This can have serious ramifications if someone turns out to be not trustworthy.

Also, beware of women who gossip incessantly about others. They'll do the same to you. Although most people are well meaning, not everyone always has your best interests at heart.

Psychology Today Article on Female Bullies

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.