Workplace bullying as a gendered phenomenon (2013) Helge Hoel

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Workplace bullying as a gendered phenomenon (2013) Helge Hoel

The paper shows that there are gender differences not only in reported prevalence rates and forms of bullying, but that gender also matters for the way targets and third parties make sense of and respond to bullying. It is shown that gendered conceptions of power, gender role socialisation theory and social identity theory are all relevant for explaining reported gender differences.

gender-role socialisation theory, we show how men and women are brought up with different expectations, thus influencing what is seen as “appropriate” ways to show and respond to aggressiveness and what kind of behaviour is likely to be considered gender-congruent, i.e. desirable. According to gender role socialisation theory (e.g. Eagly, 1987), roles and norms of accepted behaviour for men and women are different, and this is a product of what society expects of them. People learn behaviours that they believe are appropriate to their gender, and this determines patterns of behaviour that maximize the rewards for conforming while minimizing any negative effects of behaviours that go against prevailing norms (Ely and Padavic, 2007). Roles regarded as appropriate for women would typically prescribe interpersonal connection and expressing emotions. Roles regarded as appropriate for men, on the other hand, stress self-reliance and independence.

Gender role socialisation theory can provide many insights into gender differences in bullying behaviour. First of all, it provides additional insights into differences in choice of bullying techniques, beyond what was earlier explained by access to power and more senior positions. As men are traditionally expected and allowed to display more direct aggression than women, it is not surprising to find a higher number of men among bullies (cf. Zapf et al. 2011). Moreover, the fact that women seem to choose more indirect, and thereby more subtle forms of aggression, such as social manipulation (e.g. gossip, social exclusion, etc.) is in line with prescribed gender stereotypes. Gender socialisation theory also explains why it might be more acceptable for women to label themselves as victims, while the victim role clashes with the norms of self-reliance and independence as prescribed for men (Nixon, 2009). This can help us understand the reluctance among men to use the label “bullying”, even when subjected to negative acts (Bishop et al., 2009).

Gender role socialisation theory would further suggest that risk factors for men and women might to some extent differ, as “inappropriate’ gender conduct could lead to increased risk of penalisation. This is supported by Lee (2000), who in a qualitative study found that workplace bullying of women and men was informed by judgments of “appropriate” gender conduct and pressure to conform to such norms. In other words, men and women who failed to live up to traditional gender norms were at increased risk of bullying. Similarly, being in a profession dominated by the other gender (e.g. men in child care or nursing or women in the police or business world) seems to be associated with elevated risk (cf. Zapf et al., 2011). While, this may partly be explained by minority status, which leads to less power, choosing a gender-atypical career may in itself be a form of norm breaking that could lead to penalisation.

Preferred coping strategies may also be explained by gender role socialisation theory.As societal expectations would suggest that men would be more self-reliant and active in responding to bullying, it is not surprising to see that men are more likely to confront instigators (cf. O ´lafsson and Jo ´hannsdo ´ttir, 2004). By contrast, taking a more passive role through conflict avoidance or denial, or seeking interpersonal connection through social support, seem to fit better with the female norm.

Finally, social identity theory provides a lens to understand both why members who differ from the majority (e.g. in terms of gender) are particularly at risk and how third parties are likely to be influenced in their evaluations by the extent to which they share salient characteristics with targets and perpetrators.

Social identity theory has been used to understand the psychological basis of intergroup discrimination (Tajfel and Turner, 1979). Key elements of this theory emphasise that we place others and ourselves into categories and that we identify and associate with certain groups, i.e. our in-groups. Social identity rests on inter-group social comparisons “that seek to confirm or establish in-group favouring evaluative distinctiveness between in-group and out-group, motivated by an underlying need for self-esteem” (Hogg and Terry, 2000, p. 122).

social dominance theory, all societies consist of power hierarchies, where one, or possibly more, social groups dominate other groups (Sidanius and Pratto, 1999). Social dominance theory holds that the dominant group or groups maintain their power in part by using various forms of oppression against less fortunate groups. It has been argued that women’s progress at work constitutes a threat to the status quo of male dominance and female subordination. The victimisation of women can then be explainedas form of socialcontrol (cf. Cortina et al., 2002). This argument may throw some light on why women face an elevated risk of bullying in male-dominated work environments and when entering managerial echelons previously predominantly the domain of men (cf. Zapf et al., 2011). This has also been supported by qualitative research in the fire service, which showed that women and ethnic-minority employees were often bullied in order to preserve “white male dominance” (Archer, 1999).

Findings: There seems to be strong evidence to support bullying not being a gender-neutral phenomenon, although it affects both men and women. While we share the concern expressed by the respondents in Hutchinson and Eveline’s (2010) study, that framing bullying in gendered terms may evoke resistance and make it slide down the organisational agenda, we still believe that by treating it as gender-neutral we will never fully understand its character. We believe that acknowledging the gender aspects and being aware of them when designing prevention and intervention mechanisms will benefit both men and women.


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