Friday, 7 June 2013

Do we make too much of workplace conflict between women?

This month, the Women's Business Council released a report revealing that underuse of women's workplace potential costs the economy £160 billion.

As well as structural issues, such as inadequate workplace childcare, psychological factors can also provide obstacles to an unrestricted workplace.  A recent paper by Leah Sheppard and Karl Aquino suggests one may be the tendency to overstate the consequences of female-female workplace conflict.

 There is a pedigree of research into female-female conflict, sometimes framed in terms of the 'Queen Bee', and the data is explained through plausible psychological mechanisms. For instance, social identity theory predicts that when a group has a low status in its social environment its members will partly inherit that status, unless they distance themselves from the group and define themselves by other means.

Men tend to hold higher status roles in organisations, so women are incentivised to minimise identification with their gender, focusing on their non-feminine attributes and distancing themselves from other women. When in a position of power, these attributes are often described in the literature as hallmarks of a 'Queen Bee', and there is interesting research (reported by our Research Digest) on how such an attitude can be the consequence of workplace conditions.

However, Sheppard and Aquino highlight that there is very little data showing behavioural consequences - that women in power are more likely to actually deny positions to other women, for instance. In fact, data from a related field points the opposite way: female mentors with female proteges tend to put in more mentoring effort than men with male ones. And this points to a second critique: the lack of attention to whether male same-sex conflict has a similar incidence or severity. On an evolutionary account,  same-sex competition is likely to be more commonplace for either sex. But it is specifically tensions between women that get communicated as a phenomena, possibly because it is in violation of gender norms – women are supposed to be nurturers – and hence both more salient and judged as more negative.

Sheppard and Aquino looked at this systematically through an online experiment, where an even mix of male and female participants were presented with a single account of a fictional conflict between either two men, two women, or one party of each gender. In their feedback, the 152 participants in the various conditions saw the conflict as comparably bad for the organisation, long-term. However, those in the female-female condition believed it was less likely that the parties would reconcile, and that the personal consequences for each - in terms of satisfaction, emotional identification with the organisation and willingness to stay in role - were also worse. Both effects were statistically significant.

Such perceptions have implications: as the authors note, 'a manager might decide against assigning two female subordinates to a task that requires them to work together if he or she suspects that they cannot set their interpersonal difficulties aside'.  The message to take away is that scientific findings matter, but baselines do too. Research in a vacuum can be counterproductive to understanding the true nature of things, and as things stand it's not clear whether workplace conflict between women deserves a special status in public perception. Most of all, we need research that goes beyond attitudes to what actually happens in the workplace, in all-male relationships as well as all-female.

ResearchBlogging.orgSheppard, L., & Aquino, K. (2012). Much Ado About Nothing? Observers' Problematization of Women's Same-Sex Conflict at Work Academy of Management Perspectives, 27 (1), 52-62 DOI: 10.5465/amp.2012.0005

Further reading:
Epstein, C. F. (1980). Women’s attitudes toward other women: Myths and their consequences. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 34(3), 322–333.


  1. This is very interesting. When I was doing my M.S. in Conflict Resolution I did something similar to this but in school environment. No real conclusion was found then, but the hypothesis derived from the study was the exact opposite of the study you refer to.

    It's interesting I think, that there's been so much debate on the subject, but as you say, still very little research on what actually happens on the workplace.

  2. I don't think the matter is that gendered. Conflict is conflict, whoever is involved in it. And workers duking it out means that there is a problem of leadership and organization. It's a systems matter, thus it can only be dealt with as such. Namely, the more there is integration among company divisions and ranks, the lesser the discord.

    Barton Wilson @ ISA Registrar