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Laura Stepp Headshot

'Mean Girls' Myth: Why Can't Some Women Let It Go?

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FEMALE BULLYING

Sometimes I despair over women's opinions about women. How can females move upward if they're always tearing each other down?

I say this in reaction to comments I've received from readers of The Washington Post who read a story I wrote for this past Sunday's magazine entitled "What Happens When Mean Girls Grow Up?" What happens, I said, is that most of them mature into decent human beings. They learn to control their impulses, see someone else's point of view, be willing to share ideas.

Once they're out of school, engaged in jobs and family, they have less time to be critical and less employer support for being so, particularly in the growing number of companies that place a high value on employee cooperation and teamwork.

To be honest, those points seemed like no-brainers. Women's personal growth is well established in science and valued by employers. I wrote the story in part to offer an alternative to the mean girl/mean woman image so popular in Hollywood and the media these days.

But despite the research studies and first-person stories I included, many of the female readers taking part in last Friday's web chat didn't buy my thesis. They wrote about being bullied by female work colleagues. They talked about going into therapy, taking anti-depressants, and developing eating disorders as a result. One said mean women treat men as badly as other women. Another described a bully sister-in-law of 30 years "who qualifies, corrects, challenges, denigrates and dismisses whatever comes out of my mouth."

Still another said, "I don't really think things change that much after high school, other than the mean girls learn more socially acceptable ways to assert control over other women. Why do you think women so often say they don't want to work for other women?"

Of course, some women, bosses and employees, do mean things. So do men. As one reader, bless her heart, reminded the others, meanness is not gender specific. She wrote:

In the book, "Blubber," the entire class bullies Linda. In the movie "Odd Girl Out," boys torment the main character as well. Boys do this stuff too. Boys are not somehow morally superior to girls... Why is verbal, personal bullying always a gendered thing?... These discussions invariably turn into a pile-on the female gender... It's just so depressing reading how much we females suck. The flood of misogynistic comments that invariably follow these articles has to stop.

It's not surprising that some women assume the worst about other women. Female nastiness is celebrated on television these days in shows such as "Real Housewives Of..." (name your city). Hollywood isn't producing nearly as many female friendship movies as it once did (which may be why, besides the fabulous clothes, the poorly-reviewed "Sex and the City 2" made any money at all.)

Political discourse is increasingly mean -- and oh, how the news media love to report the insults traded between female political candidates. The slickest weapon of all, the computer, enables users to lash out at individuals without forethought, their missiles recorded for all time. Tweets, blog posts and comments on facebook are like the wicked notes girls used to pass in high school but are read by a much larger audience.

However, none of this turns sound science on its head. And by stereotyping their gender, female critics risk reversing the progress women have made in education, employment and earnings.

Women are multi-dimensional, sometimes warm and generous, sometimes cold and conniving. We should expect no more from them than from men -- and no less.

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