Regrettably, women’s same-sex conflicts in the workplace have long been maligned in books as inherently more problematic than men’s. Hence, the negative stereotypes – the “queen bee syndrome” or worse, “cat fights.”

The typecasting prompted a 2013 academic report, “Much Ado about Nothing? Observers’ Problematization of Women’s Same-Sex Conflict at Work.”

The research concludes it’s nonsense. Two researchers, Leah D. Sheppard and Karl Aquino of the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia published a paper in the journal, Academy of Management Perspectives.

Excerpts from an Academy of Management press release:

They researched three workplace conflict scenarios – they were the same except for the names of the individuals involved. In one version they were Adam and Steven; in a second version they were Adam and Sarah; and in a third they were Sarah and Anna.

The authors wrote “when all else is equal…female-female conflict is generally perceived as having more negative implications for the individuals involved…than male-male or male-female conflicts….Observers view female-female conflict as more problematic.”

As the authors put it, “Female participants were just as likely as male participants to problematize female-female conflicts.”

Workplace ramifications

The authors wrote this “could have serious implications for women’s work-related outcomes. For example, a manager might decide against assigning two female subordinates to a task that requires them to work together if he or she suspects that they cannot set their interpersonal difficulties aside.

“This might result in lost opportunities for female employees, given the ever-increasing implementation and importance of teamwork in organizational settings. Women who have had interpersonal difficulties with female coworkers in the past might be overlooked for future career-development opportunities as a result.”

More study results:

  • In the experiment that yielded these conclusions, 152 individuals, 47 percent female, from an online participant pool were randomly assigned to read about a workplace conflict involving two account managers in a consulting firm. The conflict developed when manager A gave orders to an intern working for manager B without informing manager B, as a result of which manager B complained to their common supervisor. This in turn led to an angry confrontation between the two managers in B’s office.
  • Participants were asked to make judgments on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) on three sets of items: 1) the likelihood that the two managers would be able to repair their relationship going forward; 2) the extent to which the conflict would affect the two individuals’ job satisfaction, commitment to the company, and interest in leaving the company; and 3) the effect of the dispute between two of the firm’s 10 account managers on the reputation, morale, and performance of the organization as a whole.
  • On the first question – whether the two managers would repair their relationship – participants judged the likelihood to be 4.1 on a scale of 1 to 7 when the conflict was between Adam and Sarah, 4.2 when it was between Adam and Steven but only 3.6 (roughly 15 percent lower) when they managers were named Anna and Sarah.

This suggests observers are “inclined to believe that women hold grudges against one another and struggle to move on from past transgressions. This perception casts female-female conflict in a particularly shameful and petty light.”

  • On the second question – the extent the conflict would disrupt the account managers’ feelings for the company -participants rated it at 4.0 when the conflict was between Adam and Sarah, 4.5 when it was between Adam and Steven, and 5.0 when it was between Anna and Sarah, a disruption 25 percent greater in raw terms than that caused by male-female conflict and more than 10 percent greater than that occasioned by male-male conflict.
  • On the third question – damage to the organization – there was no significant difference between the effect of female-female conflict and the effects of the other two.

Researchers’ reactions

The researchers hope their findings will persuade “researchers and practitioners to think more critically about the language that is often used…to describe conflict between women at work. For example, we are hard-pressed to think of a term comparable to catfight that is regularly used to label conflict and competition between two men.

“Although this particular term is more common in the media than in academic research, management scholars have widely adopted the queen bee syndrome terminology. 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 male and female members of many species.”


The authors hope for change.

“Hopefully, our findings will have some effect, however modest, in increasing managers’ awareness of this bias when they have to deal with workplace conflicts,” said Dr. Sheppard. “And, although I hate to put the onus on women, it also might benefit them to avoid ruminating with coworkers about their same-sex conflicts, since this study suggests that observers are already inclined to overly dramatize them.”

Amen. The use of labels is often unproductive.

My sense is that’s also why career women often have to be more careful than men in their communication styles – to develop an image of being assertive not aggressive. That’s another obstacle for women to overcome particularly if they management ambitions, so here’s how: 18 Tips for Productive Behavior to Win in Office Politics.

As a former member of the Academy of Management, I highly recommend it as an organization as well as its publications. The organization has 18,000 members in over 100 countries – the world’s-largest group geared for management research and teaching.

From the Coach’s Corner, additional resources:

For managers:

For employees:

“The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.”

-Peter F. Drucker


Author Terry Corbell has written innumerable online business-enhancement articles, and is a business-performance consultant and profit professional. Click here to see his management services. For a complimentary chat about your business situation or to schedule him as a speaker, consultant or author, please contact Terry.