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Monday, May 18, 2009

Bully for You, Filly for Me (Or, The Alphas and the Omegas)

I had been meaning to blog on a New York Times article from a few days ago about the "phenomenon" of women in the workplace who harass, intimidate and sabotage other persons in the workplace. I'll call them bully girls. The article notes that while most workplace bullies are men, about forty percent of workplace bullies are women. It also notes that about seventy percent of the victims of female bullies are also women. The article decries this apparent affront to feminism. As one commentator suggests, such behavior is distressing because it is "antithetical" to the way women are supposed to behave to other women and gives lie to the claim that women are "nurturers and supporters." One commentator in the article suggested that woman on woman bullying may occur because women learn to fight with one another for male attention at any early age. "We're competing with our sisters for our dad's attention or for our brother's attention." I guess the girls just can't help it.

Say what? I don't know what's so surprising about the existence of bully girls. What pink cloud have some of these people have been living on? While it is possible that the behavior that is being described as "bullying" in women is just called "leadership" or "asserting authority" in men, this is not necessarily the case. (That's called the "B" factor, and the b doesn't stand for witch.) People with power, women included, are sometimes…mean to people without power. And it may have nothing to do with peculiar womanish problems. Earth shattering? I hardly think so.

Before I could get to the blog on bully girls another news item struck my attention: "Rachel Alexandra Wins the Preakness" blared the headlines in my New York Times news on tap e-mail. "Wow," I thought. "A female jockey?" Er, no. Rachel Alexandra is the filly that won. The horse. Ridden by a male jockey. The stories about Rachel Alexandra noted that she had broken a horsey glass ceiling of sorts, winning in a field of several highly rated male horses. Relatively few female horses have had big wins of this nature. Another female horse, Eight Belles, came in second in the Kentucky Derby last year but she fractured both front ankles in the race and had to be destroyed. Competing with all those big, rough boy horses was her undoing, according to some pundits.

So what do these two stories have to do with each other? A lot, if you think about it. Both have to do with that really odd gender othering that we do. Take the bully girl (please.) Despite the fact that women are half of the population, they are still treated as if they are slightly outside of the human species. Bully girls are noteworthy because of expectations of a quiet, calm domestic demeanor that follows women from the home place to the workplace. But we all know that some women weren't all sweetness and light even when they were relegated to the home front. Nor were women necessarily "nurturing and supportive" when it came to the women employees they supervised at home, namely, their domestics. As scholar Mary Romero writes, this was particularly true when the women bosses were white and the domestic workers were women of color. The relationship between domestics and their lady of the house bosses was frequently characterized by "spatial and verbal deference," emblems of an unremitting though often silent race and class struggle.

As to all the pretty little fillies that are featured in high stakes professional horse racing, gee, why make a big deal out of a filly winning a major horse race? Well, it seems that some of the same biology-as-social-destiny thinking that features in discussions about human capabilities is also seen in the horse world. It is apparently common in horse racing circles to rate male horses over females, colts over fillies, because of beliefs that fillies may be easily intimidated by the more aggressive colts or may be physically too fragile to withstand the rigors of big races. As one observer said of Rachel Alexandra: "[she] marked herself the alpha-filly of her generation, and it is that kind of horse who has earned a chance to tackle males."

Well, doggie. That's some mighty fine anthropomorphizing. Exporting human social categories such as gender to the animal world and attributing human motivations to the behavior of animals has always been a peculiar phenomenon. Moreover, the practice of investing non-humans with a gender identity ('"engenderneering" as scholar Roy Scwartzman calls it) further sheds light on the values and ideals of the broader culture in which we live. We struggle to find a way to understand the behavior of beings that are other than us. The distinction between human behavior and animal behavior was thought to be pretty clear cut for centuries. But the more we study animals, the more we find that they may have traits and capacities that are just as worthy of respect as our own. They may even behave like us in some cases. What does it mean to be human, anyway? Those boundaries just seem to be slip sliding all the time ("talking" dolphin, anyone?).

In this regard, anthropomorphism has a lot to do with the effort to reconcile human maleness and femaleness. As scholar Wendy Lynn Lee suggests, anthropomorphizing has serious implications for how we construct gender, racial, sexual and class norms in the human world, and for how those norms are deployed. This is because the essential "truth" of anthropomorphism is that the human experience is central, and is posited as the model for understanding the behavior of all living beings (and even in some cases the properties of inanimate objects). Moreover, the human who figures in Westernized anthropomorphic musings is typically straight, white and male: the alpha norm around which all other identity classes group. Those other identity classes are secondary. I'll call them omegas. Because status is often hierarchically arranged based on the relative acceptability of ones identity, there are often some pretty lively battles for avoiding the bottom-most identity status. Being the omega of the omegas is pretty cruddy.

So, what are these identity-challenged omegas supposed to do?

Make like the filly: Keep running, fast. At least until the race (or the way we think about the race) changes.


  1. Having just submitted my monthly guest blog on the same NY Times article for Respectful Workplace I enjoyed reading this piece and very much appreciated the perspective you bring to the issue. Your clever humour had me laughing out loud and one can't have too many of those endophins, particularly these days. For my part I will continue to work to try and change both the race and the way we think about it.

  2. Thanks for your entry on bullying. I too read the articles about women being 40% of workplace buillies amd wondered why anyone was surprised by that statistic. Unfortunately men still hold most of the top managerial positions in corporations, but one does not have to be in a position of authority over others to bully them. A person in authority who is a bully is more likely to get away with mistreating other employees in the workplace, but a woman who bullies males, (and there are probably more of those than most people realize) can also get excused for bullying by simply accusing the male of sexual harassment. That will instantly gather her a lot of sympathy, even if she has a reputation for being a bully. Like you wrote, not all women are nurturers and supporters. We probably all know some fathers who did a better job of "mothering" their children than some mothers are capable of doing. I too was glad to see a filly win the Preakness. If I'm not mistaken I think the fastest times for women in track events are creeping closer and closer to the fastest times for men. Times are changing, but some things are not changing as fast as they should. Bullying in the workplace and schools should be taken seriously by businesses, state, and perhaps even federal lawmakers. We also definitely need more and stronger unions to address this issue. People who have been the targets of bullys need to speak out about their experience. (I've written extensively about my experience of being the target of a female bully under the heading "Workplace Psychological Abuse" on my blog "The Cambium Level" at Also the health care sector of our economy needs to publicize those companies, who practice and permit bullying, as the health and safety hazards to their communities that they are. Thanks again for your comments.
    Leonard Nolt