Hey Tech Lady,

As an engineer, I have my issues with men in the workplace, but women can be even more challenging at times. Some of the women I work with can be competitive, negative, and catty, and I get uncomfortable around them. Is this common? Do you have suggestions on how to deal with it??

— Jen P., Software Engineer, via LinkedIn


W

omen. Am I right? I love so many things often inherent about being a woman: compassion, sensitivity, nurturance, to name a few. Then there are those other traits, those pesky negatives that as descriptors, are inevitably uttered in hushed tones. Don’t get me wrong, any human being can have these qualities: anyone, anywhere, anytime. We ladies just tend to experience them on the regular.

Over my career of enough years to not want to share how many, the long, winding, bumpy-ass road was paved with a plethora of personalities. I’ve dealt with some girl-on-girl scenarios that can only be described as doozies.

When I flipped through my mental Rolodex for related personal experiences, one story stood above and beyond all others. It was my very first job as a manager, complete with a direct report of my very own, Jane. At least, that’s what we’ll call her. She had been working at the company for several years when I came on as the new kid. When we first met, the scene was straight out of a mean girl movie script. I was all grins and manners as I offered a feverishly firm handshake. Jane was stoic, silent, and barely grazed my fingers with her drive-by attempt at a greeting. The source of her resentment was quickly revealed as a promotion pass-over for the very job I was hired to fill.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, I’m persistent and not easily discouraged. I kept at her, killing her with kindness and laying on the charm. Not only did she not budge, but she went out of her way to serve me a large helping of one-word responses, exasperated facial expressions, and my personal favorite, clique attacks I honestly hadn’t even experienced the likes of in school. Since Jane had cornered the market on the social situation, I tried extending the olive branch by sitting at Jane’s already full lunch table only for them to standup in unison to exit. I went out of my way to initiate conversation only to be ignored. I was at a complete loss as to how to reverse the damage, but I had to try.

Ready for the usual gems of advice? Here are the recommendations I’ve come to rely on.

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DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY? PA-LEASE.

Most experts (insert “air quotes” here) will tell you to try not to take it personally. Yeah, right. We spend more or our waking time at work than we do at home, so how can you not? It’s normal. What you should do, though, is not react to it in your tone, with your words, or with body language. Resist the temptation to win the best comeback award in emails, keep a pleasant and balanced tone in conversations, stay positive. The more you don’t react, the more their attitude sticks out like a sore thumb.


PLEASANT PUSHBACK

Just because you shouldn’t react with your attitude doesn’t mean you should let it slide. Be assertive, be professional, craft your words carefully. When you reply, add a ‘please’, add a ‘thank you’, say it with a smile. Don’t let anyone walk all over you, but make sure you aren’t labeled the aggressor.


GETTING TO KNOW YOU

A lot of this behavior is born from feeling threatened and trying to battle for the alpha female position. You can take the threat away by getting to know the person feeling threatened. Ask them to lunch. Ask them to get coffee. Ask them about themselves. Be open about you. If the mystery surrounding you is removed, the threat dissipates.


ONE-ON-ONE

If sugary spice and everything nice doesn’t do the trick, schedule a chat, just you and the culprit. Be straightforward and assertive, not aggressive, and combative. Tell them in an even tone that you’ve felt there’s some friction between you, and you’d like to talk through it with them, honestly and professionally. You’d be surprised how much people appreciate a blunt discussion. They’re probably looking for the opportunity to vent about you, so why not to you? If you don’t feel comfortable with a one-on-one, a mediator is always an option. If your manager isn’t part of the problem, they’re always a good option to referee the wrestling match and keep things calm. I’ve moderated tough conversations for my team members many-a-time, and never had a bad outcome.


OL’ FAITHFUL

Paper trail, escalation. I can’t stress this enough, and I’m sure you’ll get tired of me saying it. Unfortunately, I’ve had to use my paper trail in the past, so you’ll never regret it. If you don’t need it, only you know you kept it. Delete. If you do need it, it’s at the ready. Remember, you can talk to HR and your manager informally for advice, but when you’ve tried and tried with no change, sometimes you just need to escalate.


PEACE OUT

Not every tip will be one that you want to hear, and this falls into that category. Sometimes, no matter what you do, the situation may not change for the better and you need to make the tough call to leave. There’s no shame in it, it happens. Just be sure to line up the next job before telling the old one you’re out of there.

Unfortunately, in my ‘Jane’ situation, I had to resort to “Peace Out”, but rest assured, I’ve used all these suggestions, and in this order. They work when it’s possible for them to. It boggles my mind that despite all of us being victim to it at one time or another, we still victimize each other. Perhaps we women should focus on supporting each other in the first place, and there won’t be any situations to fix. Can’t we all just get along?


Have a question or work challenge you’d like answered in a future article? Email me at TechLady@forbes.com. And you can read the previous column How a Great Mentor Changed My Career — And My Life.

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