Strong friendships among women in the workplace reduce conflict.

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Strong friendships among women in the workplace reduce conflict.

According to new study in the journal Organization Science, when employers foster an office environment that supports positive, social relationships between women coworkers, especially in primarily male dominated organizations, they are less likely to experience conflict among female employees..   

The researchers surveyed 145 management-level employees regarding workplace dynamics at two large U.S. firms that were primarily male-dominated environments, with women representing less than one-third of the workforce and under 15 percent of the senior management.   The study’s lead author found that, while men and women are equally likely to cite having a difficult co-worker, compared to men, women are more likely to cite another woman as a difficult coworker than they are to cite a man, or not cite anyone. However, this tendency is reduced among women who cite having more women coworkers for social support and friendship at work.   

“While gender diversity and inequality are well document topics in management, sociology and labor economics, few have looked closely at the gendered negative relationships within the workplace from a social relationship perspective,” said the lead author. “Understanding the relational side of conflict also bears practical importance as companies increasingly organize using diverse teams, heightening the reliance on informal ties between and within gender to get work accomplished.”   

So what? Alicia and I have observed horizontal (woman on woman) violence in a wide range of industries, and not just in male-dominated ones. I think the issue is tied up with our evolution and, therefore, in our genetics. Women are genetically programmed to work closely and collaboratively with one another—I have observed this in hunter-gatherer bands. Women gatherers are very collaborative, sharing most tasks—including minding infants and children. 

They form close bonds and are generally very happy together. I never saw—nor has any other researcher reported—any instance of female horizontal violence among hunter-gatherers. However if we force women to work in ways that are unnatural—e.g. in a male-dominated workplace—then the stress that that produces is undoubtedly the cause of the violence that this study is discussing.   Also in many workplaces women simply don’t feel safe. I was working in a male-dominated high tech company headquartered in Melbourne not long ago and the women there sought me out to confide in me stories of how they had been assaulted and abused by many of the men. We know from studies of abused women that they are more likely to take their anger out on another woman (or their children) than the actual abuser.   I believe that this male-on-female violence is due to the men not feeling safe—feeling that their men-only domain and status was being taken away from them.  

What now? This does not mean that women and men shouldn’t work together, or that women shouldn’t work in a situation where most of their colleagues are male. That would be absurd. What it does mean is that women should have the chance to socialize together and to feel safe.   

In order for the women to be safe the men they work with have to feel equally safe. They (the men) have to feel that they are not going to lose their status, or even their jobs. Many, many studies have shown that male violence towards women—be they co-workers, the women (or children) they live  with or strangers—is due to their own feeling of disempowerment.  

 In order for management to prevent violence of any kind at work both genders have to feel safe in terms that are meaningful to them. There is no one-size-fits-all.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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