Women can be pretty ruthless to each other in the workplace. Backstabbing, rumor spreading, malicious talking, gossiping, purposely excluding someone from an event or meeting, taking credit for someone’s work or helping to push someone out of a job.

I bet many of you have experienced behavior such as the ones mentioned above at the hands of another woman.

I call this the dark side of working with women.

Those close to me know that I have wanted to write an article on how to recognize a mean girl at work and develop strategies to effectively manage her and succeed in spite of her undermining behavior for a long time. (As an aside, I’ve also dealt with a few “mean guys” too, but that’s for a different article.)

Today, I am lucky enough to work in an environment free of mean girls (thank goodness!), that I don’t come into contact with them from time to time, or carry with me the memory of some terrible experiences of working with some very toxic females. Learning how to navigate them is an important skill to have throughout your career.

Before I delve deeper into this topic, I want to make it very clear that are plenty of amazing, supportive women in the workforce, and I’ve been very lucky to work with a number of them. They aren’t threatened by other women, and instead they go above and beyond to help others succeed. They are true role models. This article isn’t about them. I could have written an entire series of articles about the supportive women who have mentored me throughout my career. This article is about those women in the workplace who do not have your best interests at heart, and how to protect yourself against them. It’s important to remember that while you cannot can’t change someone else, you can change your own behavior, and this article will teach you how to do just that. 

A Bit of Background

Although outside of the office, the closest bonds women often have are to each other, they aren’t always each other’s biggest supporters in the workplace. In fact, they can be each other’s worst nightmares and saboteurs, viewing each other as rivals. Silly me thought that the older I got the less this would happen among women, but that hasn’t been the case. And if you haven’t experienced deceptive attacks, passive aggression and unkindness by female coworkers, consider yourself lucky.

My first job out of college was at a major women’s magazine in NYC – I was excited to land this role, but I quickly realized that this was not my dream job, it was more like a nightmare. There was so much competition among the women for everything – work assignments, promotions, perks, face time with the editors and even desk space (let’s just say that the movie The Devil Wears Prada hit close to home for me). Twenty-two-year-old me thought that my female colleagues wanted me to succeed. Boy, was I wrong. I was working with a group of piranhas. I lost a lot of weight. I had anxiety every day. It felt like middle school all over again, Monday through Friday. I lasted less than three years in that cutthroat environment.

Today there are Regina George-like characters in every industry, simply because there are more women in the workplace. Their catty behaviors such as gossiping, backstabbing and sabotaging can turn an otherwise pleasant workplace into a place of daily dread.

The silver lining is that while you will inevitably encounter mean girls throughout your career, learning how to manage them will make you stronger and more resilient. Dealing with someone like this enables you to emerge a more confident version of yourself.

Why are women so mean to other women? 

Women lash out at other women because of their own insecurities and jealousy, as well as feelings of competition and envy. There are several articles and books that delve deeper on this topic, including Katherine Crowley’s “Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal.” In the book, Crowley says that women tend to be harsh on each other when they feel threatened or envious. They may then “attack” that colleague by saying something negative about her or by shutting her out.

Mean girls are often jealous of other women’s accomplishments. So, if you’ve recently achieved a success, you unfortunately may have a target on your back.

How do you spot a mean girl?

Mean girls come in all shapes and sizes. They can masquerade as your friend. They can be young or old. They can come at you when you least expect it. This is why it’s so important to maintain professionalism at all times no matter what your level.

Mean girl warning signs:

  • They are nice to you in public but cold in private.
  • They like to be in control of situations and insist on having things their way.
  • They publicly criticize you or your opinions.
  • They twist facts and situations to make themselves look innocent.
  • They steal your work and claim it as their own.
  • They boycott your ideas, projects or social gatherings.
  • They leave you out of important meetings, lunches or after-work gatherings.
  • They discuss items of which you are excluded in front of you.
  • They tend to be quick to anger and might use direct insults or name-calling.
  • They befriend you to learn your insights and then use them against you.
  • They fabricate lies and spread rumors about your work ethic, office relationships and personal life.

Many of these warning signs point to something more serious, a toxic type of bullying called “gaslighting.” Psychology Today defines gaslighting as, “a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality.” For additional information about identifying gaslighting in the workplace, check out this article from Girl Boss.

Always remember that work is work and your colleagues are your colleagues, so it is not in your best interest to spill your entire life story and air your dirty laundry to them. What you tell your co-worker, or an industry friend could be used against you if someone is trying to get ahead of you or has a hidden agenda.

It’s a tough lesson to learn but there are people who are only out for themselves and often you realize it too late. I hate to be so negative, because that’s very unlike me, and there are so many great women in the workforce who are incredibly supportive of other women. Again, I’m referring to those who are not.

How do you effectively handle a mean girl?

When it comes to mean girls, try your best to block out the negative noise they create, don’t take what they say about you personally (no matter how hard it is), surround yourself with people who have your back and, perhaps most importantly, kill them with kindness to try and neutralize the situation.

Also, the sooner you accept that not everyone is going to like you (and that’s okay), the better off you’ll be. Cut your losses and steer clear of those people. But be polite and don’t give them any negative ammunition to use against you. And no matter how hard you want to shout from the rooftops about what a jerk (or worse) someone is, don’t ever sink to their level – rise above the gossip and negative chatter and don’t engage. Sometimes the most effective reaction you can give to a bully is no reaction at all. Taking the high road usually makes them retreat.

Mean girl managing strategies

Here are some strategies that you can use to stop mean girls from having a negative impact on your wellbeing and career.

  1. Take the high road – don’t engage with the harmful things that people say about you. (Note: if for some reason there is a shred of truth to what the person is saying about you, take the constructive feedback, but do not let the mean-spirited nature of what they are saying cloud the message.) If you ignore the comments and the person, it usually dies down and goes away. Don’t defend yourself or work hard to win over the mean girls either – it’s not effective. If someone doesn’t like you and is jealous of you, nothing you say or do is going to change that. Just ignore the negativity but…
  2. Kill them with kindness – what I mean by this is to just be kind to everyone. Be nice (but not overly kind or fake) to mean girls too. The reason is that if you don’t give them any ammunition and if you are pleasant to them, they will not have a reason to pick on you. Also, you never know what someone is dealing with outside of the workplace, so be understanding that their unkind behavior may have nothing to do with you at all.
  3. Do not engage or counterattack – as discussed above, when you don’t give a bully a reaction, it often makes them go away. They are often trying to hurt you. Counterattacking is just a waste of your time and energy. You’d be much better off doing something productive to better yourself.
  4. Problem solve – look for ways to solve the problem with this person in a professional way without stooping to their level. So, for example, if you work or volunteer together, can you find common ground to bring you closer? If not, can you get a third party involved as a sounding board/voice of reason? In both cases, document what is happening so that you have a record of the interactions in case you should need it down the line.
  5. Find your tribe – when you’re being personally attacked, it’s so important to surround yourself with people who support and really get you. I call these people my “tribe.” I know they will be there for me when I need them and that they have my back. When the going gets tough, you’ll want these folks close by.
  6. Support and lift up others – one of the most important jobs I have at this point in my career is to help the next generation of professionals in my field in whatever way they need me. I always try to support not only future leaders but my peers as well. I also hope that if people like me spend time with younger up-and-coming professionals and industry colleagues, this will eliminate future mean girl behavior by building a closer-knit community and stronger ties to one another.
  7. Don’t gossip – it’s human nature to want to retaliate and gossip about the mean girl(s) who are being cruel to you, but it just exacerbates the situation. And it’s not worth it. Also, make sure you’re not acting like a mean girl too – someone must break the chain.
  8. Don’t take it personally – remember this bad behavior is not about you but rather about the other person. You happen to be their target, which leads me to my next point…
  9. Neutralize your naysayers. As we’ve discussed, mean girl behavior stems from insecurity and jealousy, and so you can try to defuse it by giving the mean girl a public pat on the back and showing her that you think she’s a leader in her field. You can do this in several ways. If she’s a published author, share her content on social media and tag her in the posts. Invite her to speak on a panel if you are organizing an event. Giving her an opportunity to shine may stop her bad behavior. But in all these cases, be genuine and don’t go overboard trying to win her over, which can seem insincere.
  10. Don’t fall into the mean girl trap. We all have it in ourselves to gossip and be catty towards others. I’m certainly guilty of it from time to time, especially when it comes to women who have been mean to me in the past. Virtually all of us have been on the receiving end of mean girl behavior, so we know how badly it feels when it happens to us – so why are we going out of our way to make someone else feel that badly too? We are better than that, and we don’t need to be petty, mean or to gossip. Instead, let’s channel our energy into something more productive. Let’s make a vow to stop hating on each other and instead to support each other. Of course, we don’t have to like every single person with whom we work or the women in our industry associations, but we don’t have to gossip about them either. Each of us has a choice on whether we want to be nice or not. Make the right choice starting today.

What do you do if the mean girl is your boss?

If you find yourself in this unfortunate situation, it is so important to tread carefully in your role until you can find a better one because the odds are that you need your job to pay the bills. It’s always easier to find a new job while you are currently employed. It is also crucial to not give your boss any further ammunition to use against you, so do your job well, do not let her get to you, do not lose your cool and accept that you will likely be nitpicked and nothing you do will be good enough because she wants you gone. You have a target on your back and a limited amount of time in which to get yourself out of a toxic situation.

During this purgatory period, always respond professionally to emails and calls, and document what is happening in case you need it should things go awry sooner than expected. You should also be networking as much as you can in order to find a more fulfilling professional home.

Never stop being you!

Always remember that the negative comments and opinions of a few people do not define you nor are they necessarily true. Yes, it hurts when people say mean things about you – that’s a normal reaction to being personally attacked. But don’t let anyone negatively impact all the great things for which you have worked so hard and all that lies ahead for you.

Mean girls will come and go throughout your career, you just continue being your awesome self, and continue to learn and grow from your mistakes. Lean on your tribe, your mentors and those who you trust for support. As I said earlier, when you stop focusing on the haters, they often magically disappear.

Someone wise in my tribe said to me that the more successful you become, the more critics you will have – basically your success is going to make some people jealous, and they will act out against you as a result of those feelings. You can’t control the actions of another person, so just leave it alone and worry about living your own life and being a good, kind person.

Also keep in mind that when people behave badly or talk about you behind your back, it often says more about who they are versus you. Women who act like this are largely operating from a place of insecurity. Try not to take their behavior personally even though it’s hard. Remind yourself that this is not about you. Instead, feel badly for those who need to put others down in order to make themselves feel better. Then channel your energy into positive action – such as writing or speaking and working harder than everyone else and helping others overcome similar workplace bullying situations.

There will be times when the reason why you are disliked has nothing to do with you. Someone once told me they disliked a person because she had the same name as a girl who was mean to her in middle school. Um, okay. In these cases, the cards are already stacked against you and there’s not much you can do about that. So, walk away with your head held high. Your industry is big enough for the two of you. While it’s hard to swallow that not everyone will like you, focus instead on those who do. You don’t need anyone in your life who makes your feel badly about yourself.

Why mean girls are bad for all of us

Mean girls not only have a harmful effect on their victims, but on women in the workplace as a whole. Their behavior is a contributing factor that hinders us as a gender, holds us back from achieving greater success and just gets in the way from us having more meaningful relationships. Mean girl behavior is noise. It’s muck and it’s unwelcome. It’s time that we put an end to it, especially in this pivotal time for women when we should be elevating each other instead of knocking each other down. Okay, now I’m off my soapbox.

A final word about dealing with mean girls

Because I’m often in the public eye within my industry, I am sometimes a target for mean girls. I try to not let it bother me, but of course it hurts. The sooner you realize that you’ve done nothing to deserve mean girl behavior, the easier it is to let their actions roll off your back.

A lot of good can come out of dealing with mean girls. Developing a thicker skin is a useful skill to have throughout your career. Show your detractors that not only can they not stop you, but you will succeed and help others around you. The next time you have an issue with a woman, face it head on with her and try to resolve it as a mature adult. Make a vow to not gossip about others and to show kindness to those who exhibit mean girl behavior in order break the chain of these actions. Let’s consciously try to stop being mean girls and channel our efforts toward being more supportive of each other.

Often, we define ourselves by what others say about us and that’s how mean girls gain their power. Instead, empower yourself by ignoring this “noise,” focusing on becoming a better version of yourself and being a good and kind person, and ensuring that you are setting a good example (free of mean girl behaviors yourself) for the women (and everyone else) in your life. I promise that the rest will fall into place.