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Catfights and queen bees in the workplace? Much ado about nothing, new study suggests

February 1, 2013

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz , 212-233-6170,

No one objected recently when one of the celebrities on the popular reality show Celebrity Apprentice suggested that women have a special problem working together, a comment that evoked a knowing nod from boss-in-residence Donald Trump. Yet, an impressive body of research finds exactly the opposite - that working women have in-group allegiances that are stronger than men's. Which is it, then: do women get along famously on the job, or are they commonly beset, as a broad selection of books claims, by catfights and queen bee syndromes that have no equivalents in the workplace relationships of men?

In what may be the first study of its kind, a paper published in the journal Academy of Management Perspectives  tests the proposition that women's same-sex conflicts are inherently more problematic than men's, and comes to the conclusion crisply summed up by its title: Much Ado about Nothing.

Leah D. Sheppard and Karl Aquino of the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia asked a random group of subjects to make judgments on one of three workplace conflict scenarios that were exactly the same except for the names of the individuals involved. In one version they were Adam and Steven; in a second version they were Adam and Sarah; and in a third they were Sarah and Anna.

Sheppard and Aquino found, in the words of the study, that "when all else is equal…female-female conflict is generally perceived as having more negative implications for the individuals involved…than male-male or male-female conflicts….Observers view female-female conflict as more problematic."

And those observers, the study finds, include women. As the authors put it, "Female participants were just as likely as male participants to problematize female-female conflicts."

The tendency to see female-female conflict as particularly troublesome, the authors write, "could have serious implications for women's work-related outcomes. For example, 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. This might result in lost opportunities for female employees, given the ever-increasing implementation and importance of teamwork in organizational settings. Women who have had interpersonal difficulties with female coworkers in the past might be overlooked for future career-development opportunities as a result."

In the experiment that yielded these conclusions, 152 individuals, 47% female, from an online participant pool were randomly assigned to read about a workplace conflict involving two account managers in a consulting firm. The conflict developed when manager A gave orders to an intern working for manager B without informing manager B, as a result of which manager B complained to their common supervisor. This in turn led to an angry confrontation between the two managers in B's office.

Participants were asked to make judgments on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) on three sets of items: 1) the likelihood that the two managers would be able to repair their relationship going forward; 2) the extent to which the conflict would affect the two individuals' job satisfaction, commitment to the company, and interest in leaving the company; and 3) the effect of the dispute between two of the firm's 10 account managers on the reputation, morale, and performance of the organization as a whole.

On the first question - whether the two managers would repair their relationship -participants judged the likelihood to be 4.1 on a scale of 1 to 7 when the conflict was between Adam and Sarah, 4.2 when it was between Adam and Steven but only 3.6 (roughly 15% lower) when they managers were named Anna and Sarah. In the words of the study, this suggests observers are "inclined to believe that women hold grudges against one another and struggle to move on from past transgressions. This perception casts female-female conflict in a particularly shameful and petty light."

On the second question - the extent the conflict would disrupt the account managers' feelings for the company -participants rated it at 4.0 when the conflict was between Adam and Sarah, 4.5 when it was between Adam and Steven, and 5.0 when it was between Anna and Sarah, a disruption 25% greater in raw terms than that caused by male-female conflict and more than 10% greater than that occasioned by male-male conflict.

On the third question - damage to the organization - there was no significant difference between the effect of female-female conflict and the effects of the other two.

What accounts for the bias this study uncovers? Sheppard and Aquino don't offer an answer, but express the hope their findings will persuade "researchers and practitioners to think more critically about the language that is often used…to describe conflict between women at work. For example, we are hard-pressed to think of a term comparable to catfight that is regularly used to label conflict and competition between two men. Although this particular term is more common in the media than in academic research, management scholars have widely adopted the queen bee syndrome terminology. This term is troubling because it dehumanizes women and suggests that competition and conflict between women is akin to a disease, when, in reality, moderate amounts of same-sex hostility are natural and expected across male and female members of many species."

Beyond urging more discrimination in language, what further guidance does the study offer managers and workers? Comments Sheppard: "Hopefully, our findings will have some effect, however modest, in increasing managers' awareness of this bias when they have to deal with workplace conflicts. And, although I hate to put the onus on women, it also might benefit them to avoid ruminating with coworkers about their same-sex conflicts, since this study suggests that observers are already inclined to overly dramatize them."

The study, "Much Ado about Nothing? Observers' Problematizationof Women's Same-Sex Conflict at Work," is in the February/April issue of Academy of Management Perspectives. This peer-reviewed publication is published quarterly by the Academy, which, with more than 18,000 members in over 100 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are the Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Journal, and Academy of Management Learning and Education.

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