Mean Girls Syndrome
This Women’s History Month I’m thinking a lot about women at work and why so many of us work so poorly with each other.
They have been a lot of articles written recently about why Black Women don’t trust white women in the workplace and why interracial friendships often don’t work. I’m not going to get into that subject per se because I think these two articles discuss them very well and are both worth reading so I link them HERE and HERE.
What I want to talk about in this blog post is another phenomenon, if you will, I have experienced in the workplace. I call it Mean Girls Syndrome. I recently read a moving article in Medium where a Black woman shared how she witnessed a white secretary engage in a character attacking campaign that resulted in the ouster of her Black male boss and how she did nothing. I am also reminded of a powerful episode on the Amazon Prime Series “Harlem” where one of the main characters, an actress and singer complains about a racist comment by a white female theatre colleague. By the time the white female gaslighting and tears is over, it is the black woman who is required to apologize in order to keep her job and it is her Black male Director and other Black colleagues who all insist and imply that she is the wrongdoer who must apologize although it is clear that she has done nothing wrong by calling out the racist words by her colleague. That episode and the articles I mentioned above inspired me to write this blog post because it included many of the elements that I have seen women use against other women in the workplace to bring about their demise.
What do I mean by Mean Girls Syndrome? It’s when women organize and turn on other women in order to keep them in line to maintain the status quo, or to maintain racial, hetero gender, or other white supremacists’ norms. They usually do this through whisper and gossip campaigns that create narratives intended to sideline another woman and/or a person of color who they don’t feel are conforming to the office status quo. A status quo that is always intended to maintain the gender and supremacist norms of the workplace.
It’s behavior that I’ve seen women subject other women to in some shape or form in the workplace. But I find it especially saddening when I see it perpetrated by Black women upon other Black Women. We deal with so much in American workplaces that is particularly saddening and maddening when Black Women turn on each other to advance white supremacy objectives. I’ve also seen white women engage in this behavior against other white women (and Black Women) to maintain the status quo and advance and maintain hetero-gender and supremacist norms.
When competent and strong female leaders are accused of having “communication problems” or accused of not using the proper “tone” or they are accused of “bullying” because a person doesn’t like the message being delivered to them, I always give the accuser the side-eye because I have come to recognize these buzzwords as those used to seek to silence, control and/or sideline women who others see a “too” something. Too strong, too opinionated, too much. If as a Black Woman you work in a corporate environment in any capacity, but especially in any management role, this label has been applied to you or a peer at some point. It doesn’t matter what you do, you cannot escape the label of being “Too” something.
But when Black Women encounter Mean Girls Syndrome at the hands of other Black Women it can be especially painful and psychologically disorienting because it is often so unexpected.
Many of you may know about the turmoil at Black Girls Code where the founder and CEO was pushed out of her job by her board. According to reports, a board member, a Black Woman, installed herself as interim board chair and then took the action of pushing out the founder and CEO. Then even more recently there were reports about the departure of the Executive Director of Martha’s Table, where a Black woman who had been leading the organization effectively, by all accounts, abruptly resigned citing “extremely abusive behavior” by Board members. I counted at least 4 identifiable Black People on this board via their website. I do not know their roles in this mess but I can only conclude that whatever they did, was not enough to retain a clearly capable and talented leader.
In the Black Girls Code situation, the alleged role of the interim board chair and other board members who are Black Women in the ouster of the founder and CEO and the implication that she was being removed due to impropriety that no one would actually articulate set off alarm bells for me. Generally, when a CEO has engaged in behavior that warrants removal from an organization they founded and manage, board members are careful to clearly articulate the grounds for the dismissal. But in this case, in everything I’ve read the allegations are very murky and indirect which makes them suspicious. The narrative in several reports is that the ousted CEO was “difficult” that some didn’t like her “communication style.” If you’re a Black Woman you know what these code words mean and why they’re used. But what is sadder is to see other Black Women using it against another.
I have always had real issues with the idea that any leader has to be “likable” to be effective because likability is so subjective. And in almost every circumstance in which I’ve seen a leader or manager scrutinized using the “likability” litmus test they have almost NEVER been a white male. So, it seems that the only people subjected on a regular basis to a requirement of likability as a measurement of effective management ability, are women and people of color, especially Black men and women. When white men are direct and succinct in their communications they are viewed as effective communicators when women and people of color are, they are accused of having “communication problems.” And it is often women who adopt and apply these labels to other women and attack them on that basis. I have observed many white female leaders in the nonprofit space and a majority of them enslaved themselves to the goal of being likable. They sought to be self-effacing, apologetic, and indirect in their opinions, especially when dealing with male peers and subordinates. Many white women, I’ve worked with bought into the likability as a brand bullshit and they, in turn, used it as a weapon against other women, especially Black Women in the workplace. If I had a dollar for every time a white woman said I wasn’t “warm enough”, or I wasn’t “likable” or that they didn’t like my “tone,” I would literally be rich. They often complimented me on my ability to be direct and succinct in my communications but then resented me when I was direct and succinct in my communications with them. Thankfully I never let any of these comments or labels impact how I felt about myself and my abilities but I have seen them literally destroy other Black Women in the workplace.
What is more problematic is that as more Black Women and other women of color come into management roles, they are adapting these same litmus tests and applying them to each other in order to attain white acceptance and adjacency to power. They are literally throwing each other under the bus to get and keep the one or two management seat(s) at the table most organizations hold for people of color in the upper executive ranks and on their boards.
I don’t know all the details of the situation of Black Girls Code or Martha’s Table but in each, there appear to be situations where Black Women have been ousted or forced to oust themselves (for their own mental well-being) while Black Women and other people of color on those Boards either engaged in problematic behavior or did nothing to protect, support or mitigate against the problematic behavior.
As a former member of executive management at several nonprofit organizations and a Black Woman, I have personally seen and been subjected to some of the aforementioned labels by white people especially white women and also Black Women at the behest of white management. It always hurts but it is especially painful when the person engaging in your unfair malignment is someone who looks like you.
Many Black Women who are in positions of authority and leadership at white-owned or white-majority organizations are there because they played the game. They danced and they bowed. They are there because white people are not threatened by them and feel sure that they will uphold their systems of privilege and supremacy. And in most cases, they aren’t wrong. But every now and then they accidentally hire a disrupter of the system. They hire someone like me because she is authentic smart skilled talented but also unapologetically Black. They are attracted to us because of our light, and our authenticity. But then they find, as they did with me, that they cannot control that light nor alter that authenticity. They find that you will not uphold their systems especially not at the expense of other Black and Brown people. When that happens and they recognize you as a disruptor, the machine immediately seeks to bring you in line or remove you. That’s usually when the gaslighting, the microaggressions, the harassment, begin and they never end until you leave of your own free will or due to their actions. In many of these cases, they will often use people who look like you to undermine you and confirm the narrative they have created. They will seek out other Black People especially Black Women to agree with their position in order to give it credibility and to sideline and discredit you via whisper campaigns. But never be mistaken about who is holding the cards and pulling the strings.
In other instances, you as a Black Woman may create something that is pro-black but with mass appeal. Something that shifts a paradigm for Black People and has the capability of shifting the paradigm for many others. That thing you have created is recognized as potentially lucrative, and it attracts white interest or the white gaze. They will embrace you because they are interested in appropriating the thing you created. But they will always want to change that thing and they will always want to change you. Especially if they see you as being a disruptor. They may embrace the thing that you created specifically because it’s disruptive, new, or different but they won’t embrace YOU. And if they can figure out a way to take that thing away from you or separate it from you and keep it for themselves, they will not hesitate to use other people of color and specifically Black Women to do it.
I see indicators of the latter scenario in the Black Girls Code situation The reality is that Black People, including Black Women, will often allow themselves to be used to advance white supremacy agendas. Especially if they feel it strengthens their professional position. Black People can and do engage in discriminatory behavior against other Black People in the workplace. And the higher up you go in the positions of power the more likely you are to encounter Black People who are willing to sacrifice other Black People to advance white supremacy and hetero gender norms. Hetero gender norms like the idea that women should be soft-spoken should not challenge the opinions of others should not be direct and authoritative in their communications.
Some people have pointed out elements of colorism, sexism, and racism, in the Black Girl Code story. I believe these may also be factors because Black People can and do engage in discriminatory behavior against other Black People. I have seen it happen many times. At the root of it is always self-hate and the embrace of white supremacy and the desire for white adjacency.
I recently had a client come to me for advice and support in exiting a hostile work environment where discrimination was clearly present. What made the situation difficult was that her supervisor was a Black Woman of Caribbean descent , who was engaging in very egregious behavior. She was clearly bullying, harassing, gaslighting my client. She was openly verbally abusing her in front of white employees and giving job opportunities to white employees over my Black client. But it was very difficult for my client to recognize it as discrimination initially because the manager was a Black Woman.
Intra-racism and discrimination in the workplace ARE real. There are Black Women who believe they can advance themselves with their white supervisors by abusing their black subordinates. And they aren’t wrong because they often are rewarded for this behavior with promotions and other accolades.
Some of the most egregious treatment I have received in the workplace has come from white women but some of the most painful have been at the hands of other Black Women. I once worked for a Black Woman at a very large historic organization who used her position, to openly target and harass other Black Women in leadership positions on her team that she saw as rivals. I got into her crosshairs initially because I would not support her campaign to harass another Black Woman. She then sought to demote me to promote her far less qualified white female “special” assistant. Needless to say, a check had to be cut to me by the time it was all over. This was my first experience cashing out of a discriminatory toxic hostile work environment but it was definitely not my last and that it involved bad behavior by a Black Woman was extremely painful but it was also educational and informative for me.
So how do we solve this? I would urge Black Women in positions of management and leadership to always question when a white or non-Black “colleague” or “manager” raises issues about “communication style” or the “attitude” of a Black employee. You should also be prepared to question them and yourself about why you and they might think that a Black person should communicate exactly as you or they do to be effective. What problematic supremacist racial/ethnic and gender norms might you have internalized? Are you sure the concern about a person is connected to their work and effectiveness or are the concerns coming from emotional factors that have nothing to do with their work and effectiveness? Also, If another person’s demise is the only way you can move up or elevate yourself, then perhaps you should rethink whether that is the right workplace for you. We may not always realize that we are engaging in Mean Girls Syndrome behavior so it is important to engage in self-inquiry when these situations arise.
As women, we all need to realize that we have to do better for each other. But frankly, I am not particularly hopeful that white women will ever fully have the back of Black Women in the workplace because white supremacy.
So, I am specifically speaking to Black Women here ---
If you see a sister falling down on the job, rather than supporting narratives created and circulated against her, pull her aside and talk to her and see how you can be helpful. Provide advice and support. Don’t engage in or participate in gossip and whisper campaigns and call them out when you see them or hear about them. If a manager or peer has an issue with the work performance of an employee, they should put their big boy/big girl pants on and address it directly with that person rather than gossiping and whispering behind their backs. Challenge anyone who comes to you to talk about a sister (or brother) behind their back, to talk to them directly. Challenge yourself to do the same. Remember that we don’t’ all have to present or communicate the same to be effective. We are not a monolith. But we must be unified in these workplaces that were not built for us and are not invested in our success. We must be invested in each other’s success instead.
Be there for your fellow sisters (and brothers) in the workplace. There is enough room and opportunity for all of us at the table. You may be the flavor of the month today but you may not be tomorrow. Whatever they will use you to do to one of us they will eventually do to you.
We have to be hyper-vigilant as Black Women and Black people to ensure that we are protecting each other in the workplace. Because if we don’t no one else will. So, when you see Mean Girls Syndrome happening in the workplace, I hope you will now recognize it for what it is. I hope you will choose to not be a part of it and that you will not allow others to use you to inflict it on other Black Women and Black people in the workplace.