DUBAI// Social perceptions about how women and men are supposed to behave in the workplace result in different forms of "bullying" from each gender, a women's business seminar in Dubai heard yesterday.
"This is not about biology, but about social interaction. Men exhibit more overt forms of aggression, such as physical or verbal aggression, while women exhibit more relational aggression, such as threats to your friendship or social connections," said Dr Michelle Webber, director of the master's in arts programme in critical sociology at Brock University in Canada.
Dr Webber explained this is because it is seen as acceptable behaviour for men to act openly aggressive, while women feel such behaviour compromises their femininity. As a result, women resort to other methods of demonstrating their dominance.
"This form of aggression is more difficult to confront because it's not out in the open," Dr Webber said. "Women can easily hide behind their intent and it's difficult to prove this [behaviour] was done purposely. It's very insidious."
Dr Webber was among a number experts speaking at a Mena Women in Business seminar under the theme "Women colleagues: Friend or Foe." She was presenting the foe aspect of the discussion.
Erin Miller Rankin, a senior associate at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, established the quarterly Women in Business series to tackle important issues that women face at the workplace everyday. One of these issues was the reluctance of women to work with other women.
"Through our previous series, we discovered that many women struggled when working with female colleagues or bosses," she said. "Sometimes many women even said they would prefer working with males."
The organisational structure of a company can be an important enabling factor, Dr Webber said. "When you have strong leadership that does not tolerate this behaviour, there is a less likely chance for it to exist."
Studies show that women judge each other harshly and pay more attention to qualifications of other women, Dr Webber said, adding that studies also show that men are more likely to promote women.
Such behaviour is exacerbated, Dr Webber said, when there are limited opportunities for the growth of women in a company - another important responsibility of the employer. "When there are more opportunities for women to reach the top, there is less need for this behaviour," she said. "However, if there is just one spot for the 'token women', you're setting up a hostile environment."
There is a flip side to the coin, however, as women often form very close relationships with each other. Lucy Reed, co-head of the Global International Arbitration Group at Freshfields, said she tries being a friend before she is a boss.
"The hardest part about this job is to fire people or tell them when they're not doing well," she said. "And that is why I make sure that I listen to everyone and that I'm empathetic."
When asked whether female colleagues are friends or foes, for Ms Reed, the answer was simple.
"I think friend, even if it takes time and effort," she said. "There are enough obstacles for real problems, and no room for women to put up other obstacles for other women."
A supportive workplace environment that provides opportunities that strengthen employees' skills and capabilities to drive sustainable growth is key to healthy interaction between all colleagues, said Vicki Gillespie, regional vice president of planning at PespiCo.
"It's easy to bring diversity in the workplace," she said. "But the challenge lies in including, welcoming and embracing the strengths of our differences, encouraging involvement and providing equal access to opportunities."
Female audience members and employers also held strong, varied opinions.
"Women are much more loyal, while men often turn on me," a women lawyer at Barclays said. "Women stick together, there is a strong sense of female solidarity."
Tamima Yahya, a lawyer at Emaar, said the close relationship between women can often be a double-edged sword.
"One minute you're being friendly and socialising, the next you discover there is something brewing on the side," she said.