Much Ado About Nothing? Observers’ Problematization of Women’s Same-Sex Conflict at Work
Conflict between women is perceived as more problematic than conflict between men, or conflict between a woman and a man—even in otherwise identical workplace scenarios.
A common belief within workplaces is that women can’t get along with other women, and are less likely to help them advance in their careers. Management research describes “queen bee syndrome,” in which women in senior positions undermine the careers of junior women. Research in this area suggests gender inequality as a root cause of women’s mutual hostility: because women have lower status, they distance themselves from their own group. As women perceive opportunities in the workplace to be scarce, they respond aggressively to one another as competitive threats. However, the evidence for women’s hostility and its causes is mixed. Critically, past research has failed to offer comparisons against men’s or mixed-gender conflict before assigning workplace aggression and competitiveness as characteristics of women—perhaps because such behavior aligns better with gender expectations for men. In this study, the authors examine the hypothesis that people are predisposed to perceive workplace conflict between women as more severe than conflict involving men. They varied the gender of two parties in a conflict scenario, and then compared how participants perceived the severity and consequences of the scenario when it involved two women, two men, or a woman and a man.
When participants read a scenario describing a conflict between two managers, they perceived the conflict to be more problematic if both managers were women than if one manager or both managers were men.
- Participants believed that after a work conflict, two women were less likely to repair their relationship than two men, or a woman and a man.
- When the conflict scenario used two women’s names, participants rated the likelihood of relationship repair at 3.60 on a 7-point scale.
- When the conflict scenario used two men’s names, participants rated the likelihood of relationship repair at 4.17.
- When the conflict scenario used a woman’s and a man’s names—alternating the gender of the instigator—participants rated the likelihood of relationship repair at 4.09.
- Participants believed that after a work conflict, two women were more likely to suffer negative personal consequences—including job dissatisfaction, lack of belonging, and a desire to leave the organization—than two men, or a woman and a man.
- When the conflict scenario used two women’s names, participants rated the severity of negative personal implications at 4.95 on a 7-point scale.
- When the conflict scenario used two men’s names, participants rated the severity of negative personal implications at 4.51.
- When the conflict scenario used a woman’s and a man’s name, participants rated the severity of negative personal implications at 3.99.
- Participants believed the negative consequences for the organization’s reputation, productivity, or morale would be similar regardless of whether the conflict involved two women (3.59 on a 7-point scale), two men (3.70), or a woman and a man (3.37).
- Participants perceived work conflict to be more problematic among women regardless of their own gender or how frequently they had previously encountered conflicts between two women, two men, or a woman and a man.
These findings suggest that participants—whether women or men—are predisposed by gender stereotypes to believe that workplace conflict between women is more serious than conflict involving men, and that women involved in conflict with each other are more likely to have poor working relationships, lose commitment to their jobs, and quit their organizations. Such perceptions may create self-fulfilling prophecies among women who anticipate long-term difficulties following a conflict. Researchers should avoid perpetuating bias by refraining from the use of stereotyping labels like “queen bee” and providing gender-balanced accounts of workplace conflict.
The study recruited 152 adults through Amazon Mechanical Turk. Participants read a scenario describing a workplace conflict between two individuals, whose names were randomized to indicate two women; two men; or a woman and a man, alternating the gender of the instigator. The scenario described a conflict between two managers at a consulting firm. In the scenario, the instigating manager contradicts instructions to the other manager’s intern, leading the other manager to complain to their supervisor. The instigating manager then confronts the other manager for “ratting” to their supervisor. Participants used a 7-point scale to rate the likelihood that the two managers would repair their relationship (7 items), the severity of personal implications for one or both managers (8 items), and the severity of organizational implications (10 items). Participants also provided their gender and rated the frequency of their past direct or observational experience with conflict between women, between men, and between a woman and a man (3 items, 5-point scale).