Women Experience More Incivility at Work — Especially from Other Women

Executive Summary

Most employees, at one point or another, have been the victim of incivility at work. In research, one finding that has been frequently documented is that women tend to report experiencing more incivility at work than their male counterparts. However, it has been unclear to as to who is perpetrating the mistreatment towards women at work, and why. A recent study sheds some light on this, showing that women reported experiencing more incivility from other women than from their male coworkers. In addition, when women acted more assertively at work—expressing opinions in meetings, assigning people to tasks, and taking charge—they were even more likely to report receiving uncivil treatment from other women at work. Men who deviated from gender norms were not punished by their peers similarly.

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Hayon thapaliya for hbr

Most employees, at one point or another, have been the victim of incivility at work. Ranging from snarky comments or rude interruptions to being disrespected in a brusque email, organizations can be breeding grounds for this type of behavior. Compared to more egregious forms of workplace mistreatment like sexual harassment, incivility—which is classified as low-intensity deviance at work—may seem minor. Yet, the costs of incivility can add up.

Estimates from a large-scale study indicated some astounding statistics: in response to incivility experiences, 48% of employees intentionally decreased their work effort, 47% intentionally decreased their time at work, and 38% internationally decreased the level of quality in their work.

Even more shocking, 80% of employees indicated that they lost time at work due to merely ruminating about experienced incivility, with 66% indicating that their performance declined, and 78% indicating that they lowered their commitment to their organization. The authors of this study also estimated that—due to cognitive distractions and time delays—the monetary cost of incivility can be upwards of $14,000 per employee. As such, there are financial and human well-being-related costs borne from exposure to incivility at work.

One finding that has been frequently documented is that women tend to report experiencing more incivility at work than their male counterparts. However, it has been unclear to as to who is perpetrating the mistreatment towards women at work. Some have theorized that men may be the culprits, as men are the more dominant social class in society and may feel as though they have the power to mistreat women. Perhaps as more overt forms of mistreatment like sexual harassment have become legally prohibited and socially taboo, subtle forms of discrimination in the form of incivility may increasingly occur within the workplace. Others, however, have theorized and suggested that women may be mistreating other women because they are more likely to view each other as competition for advancement opportunities in companies.

Our research examined these two opposing views by conducting three complementary studies. These studies involved rather large samples, surveying between 400 and over 600 U.S. employees per study, across a variety of service operations and time periods. In each study, we consistently found that women reported experiencing more incivility from other women than from their male coworkers. Examples of this incivility included being addressed in unprofessional terms, having derogatory comments directed toward them, being put down in a condescending way, and being ignored or excluded from professional camaraderie.

This is not to say that men weren’t acting uncivilly; rather, the frequency was higher between women and their female counterparts. In addition, men didn’t seem to have differential experiences surrounding mistreatment—they experienced lower incivility than women overall, and reported fairly equal levels of incivility from both women and men. These findings were consistent even after accounting for the gender composition of the workplace and for personality traits—like how dispositionally negative and paranoid people in our samples typically were—that may increase the likelihood that individuals perceive mistreatment.

The question, though, is why? Why would women be more susceptible to this treatment from other women? Our research suggests that when women acted more assertively at work—expressing opinions in meetings, assigning people to tasks, and taking charge—they were even more likely to report receiving uncivil treatment from other women at work. We suspect that it may be that women acting assertively contradicts the norms that women must be warm and nurturing rather than emphatic and dominant. This means that women who take charge at work may suffer backlash in the form of being interpersonally mistreated.

It may also be the case that these assertive behaviors are viewed as ruthless by other women; given that women are more likely to compare themselves against each other, these behaviors may signal competition, eliciting incivility as a response.

Men, however, don’t seem to have the same problems when they deviate from gender norms, at least in how other men respond to these exceptions. In our research, men who acted in a warm, nurturing manner tended to report lower instances of incivility from other men compared to those who reported lower levels of this kind of behavior at work. So, whereas women were seemingly penalized by their female counterparts for acting in a way inconsistent with gender norms, men received a social credit of sorts from their male peers. Society seems to be providing men with more latitude to deviate from societal expectations, whereas women aren’t afforded the same luxury.

Lastly, we found that the effects of being the target of incivility took a toll on women’s well-being. We asked employees in one of our studies to report their job satisfaction at work over the last month; in another, we also assessed job satisfaction in addition to how alive and energetic employees felt and their intent to leave their current job. In response to being mistreated by their female counterparts, women reported lower job satisfaction, lower levels of vitality, and increased intentions to quit their job. Incivility directed from men did not garner these same results for women or for men in our studies. As such, incivility among women may be a unique experience that organizations should work towards addressing.

How? Broadly, organizations should aim to cultivate cultures of civility with their employees and both teach and train civility at work. There is evidence, for example, that interventions aimed at increasing discussions surrounding the value of civility at work can be effective at reducing rates of mistreatment. Other options include employee-run resource groups or affinity groups for women, preferably sponsored by senior female leaders; or mentoring programs that pair aspiring women with female leaders.

Employees and managers alike also need to treat issues associated with incivility seriously. There may be a tendency to shrug off these experiences, but doing so can perpetuate a negative cycle for employees and diminish the very real experiences women are having in the workplace. Managers and coworkers alike take accounts of incivility to heart to improve women’s experiences in the workplace.

Research aside, it is important for people to analyze their own experiences and behaviors. Let’s be honest: there has probably been a time when we’ve all been rude at work. Maybe we were so busy we didn’t have time to be polite; maybe someone rubbed us the wrong way; or maybe we were just in a bad mood. Ultimately, when we are rude to our coworkers or our teammates, we harm them in the same way that these experiences can harm us. Being introspective and understanding our own experiences and actions can help make the workplace a more civil place, which ultimately makes it better for both women and men.