Office conflicts between women seen as more damaging

New research from the University of British Columbia's business school suggests men and women perceive conflict between two women co-workers as being more harmful and doing more irreparable damage than conflicts between men.

Women get a bad rap in workplace conflict, business school research indicates

Research out of UBC suggests conflict between female coworkers is perceived as being more harmful. (iStock)

New research from the University of British Columbia's business school suggests men and women perceive conflict between two women co-workers as being more harmful and doing more irreparable damage than conflicts between men.

According to research from the Sauder School of Business recently published in the Academy of Management Perspectives journal, both men and women assume that an office disagreement between two women will have more negative impacts and be harder to repair than a disagreement between two men or a man and a woman.

"Our research shows that when it comes to workplace conflict, women get a bad rap," said PhD candidate Leah Sheppard, who conducted the study with Prof. Karl Aquino.

In the study, the pair assembled a random selection of 152 people — 71 of which were women — and asked them to read a scenario and give the likelihood of different outcomes based on a scale ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree."

The test case consisted of a hypothetical story about two managers who worked at a consulting firm, and the details of a disagreement they had where one ended up complaining to a superior about another.

In one story, the two protagonists were given the male names of Adam and Steve. In other versions, the two characters were a man and a woman —  Adam and Sarah. In the last instance, the two people were given female names, Sarah and Anne.

All other details were the same.

More negative long-term

The research team found that study participants perceived there to be more negative long-term implications from the female-to-female dispute than they saw in the male-male or male-female conflicts.

The likelihood of the two managers being able to repair their relationship was 15 per cent lower when the theoretical example involved two women. The study's participants also said the two hypothetical women were more likely to let the argument negatively influence their job satisfaction than the male-female or male-male quarrellers were.

And the perception that female work conflicts are more likely to be toxic was just as prominent among female respondents as it was with males.

"This study suggests there’s still a long way to go when it comes to the perception of women in the workplace," Sheppard said. "Hopefully, our findings will help to increase managers’ awareness of this bias, so they don’t let stereotypes guide their decisions on how they staff teams and leverage the full talent of female employees."

'Catfight' used regularly

In the report, Sheppard writes there is an unfortunate tendency in mainstream society to characterize female interactions as being based on conflict and jealousy, whereas male conflict is more natural and healthy.

"I think people perceive female conflict negatively because it violates the way they think women should be," Sheppard told CBC News in an interview. "We want them to be always nurturing and kind and supportive."

It's an assumption that people don't impose whenever men deal with each other, even in a hostile way, she says.

"We are hard-pressed to think of a term comparable to 'catfight' that is regularly used to label conflict and competition between two men," she notes. "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 [men and women.]"

The implications of the report are obvious. Women make up roughly half of the modern workforce, yet they hold only 15 per cent of the most senior executive positions, according to the most up to date statistics available. Gender-based stereotyping is often cited as a leading cause of that problem.

The researchers hope their work contributes more to the study of gender discrimination and stereotypes in the workforce, but insist much further research is needed.

"A manager who subscribes to this notion … might decide against selecting a woman for a coveted position in a work group if there is already a female member in the group, for fear that the cohesion of the group will decline as a result," Sheppard says.

"For these reasons, an examination of the available evidence and a discussion of future directions [is] overdue."


Pete Evans

Senior Business Writer

Pete Evans is the senior business writer for Prior to coming to the CBC, his work has appeared in the Globe & Mail, the Financial Post, the Toronto Star, and Canadian Business Magazine. Twitter: @p_evans Email: