Is Workplace Gossip More Hurtful To Women?

Posted: February 4, 2016

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Are you a women who is the target of workplace gossip? Read on to find out how you can handle it.

I have a confession. I love to be in on the gossip. Many of us do. It is fun to know some of the juicy details in the lives of our friends, acquaintances and even strangers. Sometimes it is the thrill of being privy to something someone is embarrassed by or wants to keep under wraps, and sometimes it is schadenfreude; the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. Either way, in a work place, gossip can do real damage to a person’s reputation, career and productivity. Also, gossip often takes on a gender biased flavour, adding to the many problems women already face in the workplace.

Why gossip at work?

Earlier there was an 8 hour work day at office, after which people went home to indulge in family time and social lives. Even jobs that needed tending to at night, were done in shifts. But recently, working long hours has become very common. With increasing competition, mounting deadlines,  a number of people sometimes practically live in the office.

As a result one’s co-workers also tend to be one’s friends. Such a strong overlap between work life and social life, makes work place gossip very difficult to eliminate. Also, over the years, office interactions have become less formal. While this has many advantages, it makes gossiping seem less inappropriate.

How is workplace gossip harmful?

I have read a number of articles about how workplace gossip is harmful, to the organisation because it diminishes trust between employees, wastes time, reduces productivity and efficiency. But what about the human angle? Does work place gossip hurt the employees emotionally?

I think it does, and here I want to explore how it hurts women in particular.

Consider two colleagues of different sexes who are friendly. Say they also have a lot of overlap in their work. Sometimes they may even have to work late nights. Now, say they are both single. A lot of people are likely to gossip about them and speculate about their romantic involvement.  But could such innocent speculation really hurt anyone? Many women come from conservative families. Such gossip might make them uncomfortable. They might sever a productive partnership that could have helped further their career or worse quit the job, because they fear the gossip spreading and ruining their reputation.

Stud v/s Slut

Society has always been partial towards men. A ‘stud’ has a semi positive connotation, while its counterpart ‘slut’ has an extremely negative connotation. Workplace gossip involving such phrases is much more upsetting for women than it is for men. Similarly while a male boss will often be looked up to, for being a principled and a strong leader, a woman manager with a similar attitude, is likely to be criticized as bitchy, anal and pushy.

Emotional?

Another way in which workplace gossip can be damaging to a woman is if she is described as emotional and people start to believe it. This can reduce her chances of being promoted, as many believe that women who get emotional, can’t keep their cool and cave under pressure.

Appearance

Workplace gossip about appearance can also affect many women in particular. When a man puts on or loses a few pounds it is rarely noticed, but when a woman does people talk about it. They even speculate about the reasons including a break up or bad performance review. Many women feel threatened when their appearance is criticized and it affects their productivity and confidence. In some cases, people might even gossip about the possibility of the woman being pregnant, and that could be very embarrassing for her.

Working hours

Some women need to leave the workplace early, to attend to responsibilities at home. They may take work home or work through their lunch hour to compensate. But gossip about them leaving early and questioning their commitment to work can be very stressful for them.

Is it possible to do away with work place gossip?

May be not entirely. But promoting team work and trust helps. It might also help to obtain feedback and input from employees and treat them respectfully so they feel valued. The more secure and valued people feel, the less the need to put other people down. Increasing transparency in various office procedures reduces room for speculation.

How to tackle gender biased gossip?

  • This kind of gossip thrives in a gender biased environment.
  • It helps to have strict policies against workplace harassment.
  • It also helps to introduce sensitivity training programmes for employees.
  • If the management actively favours gender neutrality, in hiring and promoting employees and fosters a strong gender neutrality culture, then the employees will automatically feel uncomfortable perpetrating gossip with a gender biased flavour. People are much less likely to litter a clean public place, than a dirty one.
  • Similarly, employees are unlikely to perpetrate gender biased gossip, if they think it will be met with disapproval instead of interest.

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Image source: workplace gossip by Shutterstock.

Kanika G, a physicist by training and a mother of 2 girls, started writing to

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