May 11, 2009

Most emailed NYT article: Women on women workplace aggression

I tend not to put too much stock in the most emailed articles from most mainstream news sources; typically it's the fluff, the cute animals and oddities (not that I don't enjoy my fair share). Case in point: the BBC's #1 most popular story of the moment: "60-foot penis painted on roof." Awesome.

The New York Times audience seems to tend toward sharing slightly more substantive articles, like the one written by an American expat loving life in the Dutch social welfare state, featuring in last week's Times Magazine (incidentally, worth checking out, if only to swoon at the provisions of the Dutch government's universal health care: ~$400 covers a family of 4, no copays, and dental included, day care is covered to the tune of $14,000/child annually, and legal barriers for midwives are lifted -- home birth is a longstanding tradition).

But getting back to promoted articles: I looked at the most emailed articles on the NYT homepage this morning, hoping readers would be pointing to an equally engrossing read, and here's what I get:

Backlash: Women Bullying Women at Work

Anytime a writer invokes Susan Faludi in the title of an article that points to women as the culprits of our own oppression, you know you're in for a treat. Get this: there's more office bullying during tough times, and some of those bullies are women.

It’s probably no surprise that most of these bullies are men, as a survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, an advocacy group, makes clear. But a good 40 percent of bullies are women. And at least the male bullies take an egalitarian approach, mowing down men and women pretty much in equal measure. The women appear to prefer their own kind, choosing other women as targets more than 70 percent of the time.

In the name of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, what is going on here?

Just the mention of women treating other women badly on the job seemingly shakes the women’s movement to its core.

It is what Peggy Klaus, an executive coach in Berkeley, Calif., has called “the pink elephant” in the room. How can women break through the glass ceiling if they are ducking verbal blows from other women in cubicles, hallways and conference rooms?

Women don’t like to talk about it because it is “so antithetical to the way that we are supposed to behave to other women,” Ms. Klaus said. “We are supposed to be the nurturers and the supporters.”

So let's recap: you've got your essentialist notions of the masculine and feminine (men=aggressive, women=nurturers), and your basic feminist name dropping/attempted movement discrediting. It would be comical if so many people weren't forwarding it, some of whom probably bought into these stereotypes.

Author Mickey Meece fails to consider how stereotypes feed discrimination in the workplace, though for an instant he seems like he's on the right track. He speculates about structural inequities that could be at work and hits upon the lack of women at the top (to say nothing of the pay gap) before one moment of clarity, with the help of Catalyst research:

Leadership specialists wonder, are women being “overly aggressive” because there are too few opportunities for advancement? Or is it stereotyping and women are only perceived as being overly aggressive? Is there a double standard at work?

Research on gender stereotyping from Catalyst suggests that no matter how women choose to lead, they are perceived as “never just right.” What’s more, the group found, women must work twice as hard as men to achieve the same level of recognition and prove they can lead.

The article minimizes the gendered hurdles that women face outside the realm of office politics and instead puts the onus on us to "hug it out," with researchers lamenting the fact that women won't operate purely based on their shared identity as women, rather than as independent, ambitious, people. And since when is it news that women are competitive and strive to excel as individuals?

Now I'm all for solidarity and cooperation among women and underrepresented communities. But the reality is that women are pitted against one another from the womb by powerful media messaging from those who stand to benefit from a divide and conquer strategy. And based on the sources Meece has chosen, he seems pretty transparently bent on disregarding feminist social critiques and instead making the case that nothing stands in women's way but women themselves:

“As we get into the corporate world,” Ms. Cirocco added, “we’re taught or we’re led to believe that we don’t get ahead because of men. But, we really don’t get ahead because of ourselves. Instead of building each other up and showcasing each other, we’re constantly tearing each other down.”

Conclusion: women bear responsibility for our upward mobility, end of story. Easy to point fingers, if you're not owning your responsibility as someone with the privilege and platform to be heard and amplified by readers across the country. The most popular stories do provide some interesting insight into an audience and how narrow viewpoints seep into the discourse on equality.

UPDATE: Cross-posted on feministing!