Dr. Nikki Stamp: “The mean girl is back. And she’s online.”

nikki stamp online bullying

“What’s with the one shoulder dress? Don’t you think that’s a bit slutty?” was how the message popped up in my inbox. I actually thought I looked quite nice that day, but apparently my slutty left shoulder had ruined all of that. Luckily my right shoulder was still covered and remained classy.

I know that by having any semblance of a public presence that people will judge you, but I had no idea my shoulders were in the firing line. Nor that the bulk of criticism, judgements and online vitriol would come from women.

We all know about the Mean Girl. We probably met her in high school when she would whisper to her friends as you approached them outside the classroom. Mean Girls was also the title of the popular film, which served as a kind of cautionary tale against being one. Queen Bees were on their way out as the sisterhood began to reign supreme.

Back in 2015, I was a part of the birth of an online movement called #ILookLikeASurgeon, designed to challenge gender stereotypes that many women in medicine and surgery faced every day. Rather than a movement that attacked anyone who willingly or unwillingly perpetuated the myth that all surgeons were older white men, social media was flooded with positive role models. The hashtag took off around the world and introduced to me to more female surgeons than I had ever met in my whole career. These women became my confidants, mentors, collaborators and friends. I got a buzz as I realised that the sisterhood was indeed alive and not only well, but powerful.

Three years down the track and my high, I’m sorry to say, has been tempered. Recently, I started to notice a disturbing trend. Online, even in purported “safe spaces” for women such as professed feminist groups, or women’s professional craft groups, there is a disturbing amount of flaming going on. For me, I’ve been called all kinds of names and witnessed others get the same schoolyard treatment. Except that as adults, we should know better. And as women, even more so.

I am inspired by so many of my wonderful #ilooklikeasurgeon colleagues, even more than usual lately. They have a fire to make a difference in their world and it makes me proud to know them. – Why is it so important to me to be a female surgeon? For the very same reason I love what I do – the people whose lives we can help change. Women who have heart attacks are more likely to die than men, be diagnosed with anxiety and receive suboptimal treatment. – As a female heart surgeon, I see it as my responsibility to do whatever I can to protect women’s hearts. Centuries of #unconsciousbias have led us to this point and any way in which we can challenge that is vital to improve health care for women. I won’t stop working hard for other women ❤️ #canyoudieofabrokenheart #womenshearts #womeninstem

A post shared by Dr Nikki Stamp (@drnikkistamp) on

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The Mean Girl seems to be having a resurgence except for one difference. Rather than congregating around school lockers or water coolers at work, she’s back and this time, she’s online. On Facebook groups, in your DMs and on Twitter, the mean girl is poised ready to attack everything from the way you look, the causes you support, the way you conduct your career, your marriage or even your opinion on trivialities like the foods you eat.

In an age when #MeToo has mobilised women in droves and the sisterhood is vital to battling against the demons of sexism, why are women still reluctant to support other women? And how do our online lives facilitate the Mean Girl? But most importantly, what can we do about it?

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There is good research to support that in the workplace, women are often on the receiving end of incivility. Women are more likely to experience bullying, harassment or incivility in the workplace and it comes at a cost to productivity and mental health. However, in amongst research like this, the most disturbing finding is that women report copping it more often from other women.

Women infighting seems to arise from women perceiving each other as competition for a number of things from promotions, positions or even romantic rivals.

Now these women aren’t all rotten eggs. Sexist organisations themselves have a role in incubating what we would term the Queen Bee; the senior woman who has risen through the ranks. In order to succeed, Queen Bees have had to distance themselves from their gender and their own behaviour develops from the things happening around them. They have often experienced a lot of gender-based discrimination in their own careers and they can echo that themselves down the line.

The other important caveat is that women who are assertive or even aggressive are judged far more harshly by both men and women at that level. Therefore, when a senior woman makes a comment that is a strident or is simply constructive criticism, she’s more likely to be thought of as nasty by others including other women. Despite these mitigating factors, Queen Bees and Mean Girls shouldn’t necessarily be given a free pass.

As our quest for social justice and safe workplaces evolves, it’s becoming less acceptable to act out in a way we would have years ago. Aggression has gone underground by going online. At the same time as hiding behind keyboards, it has become so easy to pick a fight or pick on someone that online behaviour is reaching new lows that we wouldn’t tolerate in real life.

Dr Stamp. Image: supplied

Social media has already been shown to increase levels of anxiety in women, especially when it comes to body image, a favorite target of put-downs. Online aggression and incivility has often been attributed to the fact that some social media or online sites can afford a level of anonymity, reducing the consequences of behaving badly. If people don’t know who you are, you can say what you like because you probably won’t get caught.

However, on platforms like Facebook, where users’ real names are required and personal information is a little more obvious, the lack of anonymity doesn’t seem to reduce the meanness. It’s thought that group norms, or what people see as acceptable, allow us to act out in a way that just isn’t right. In online forums where politics or social issues are up for discussion, posting negative comments that can be quite harmful or helpful isn’t seen as quite so bad. It may be that when it comes to politics, we see it as our right to be a-holes.

The price of our online bad behaviour isn’t small. In fact, it can be quite high. By freely making nasty comments about someone, especially those that relate to their skill or commitments, their reputation could be put at risk. Above and beyond that, incivility and bullying in the workplace (of which social media can form a part) reduces productivity and performance. In the online sphere, even if it’s done under the guise of ‘promoting robust discussion’ or that ‘that’s what you expect if you put yourself out there’, incivility actually impedes democracy, and increases anxiety.

"How would you feel to be on the receiving end?"

I have seen first-hand, some serious online, mean girl behaviour recently. There are women who I do not know at all taking issue with a number of women in a Facebook craft group. And they’re not shy about letting everyone know what a bad job I do as a feminist, as an advocate or even that others do as wives, mothers and professionals. It hurts because nobody wants to be on the receiving end of meanness but also, what she had to say couldn’t be further from the truth. These disparaging words threaten my and others’ reputations but also perhaps the Mean Girls'. These Mean Girls put other women in the firing line, chipping away at their reputations until she cultivates a real-life gang of “Plastics”, followers who should be allies, but instead create negativity and disharmony.

I am a big fan of the carrot versus the stick. I believe in flooding the spaces we want to change with positive messages and positive change because I think then we can create revolution and also stay true to our values. However, women cannot do it alone and we need the sisterhood more than ever. Even as I write this piece, I am buoyed by my sisters in arms who listened to these ideas and cheered me on as they poured out on to paper. There is immense power in support from your tribe and its time we realise that should trump all hate.

If we have learnt anything from #MeToo and Time’s Up, it’s that united we are far stronger than we are divided, especially online. Social media in particular has the possibility to reach change-makers around the world rather than being used as a battle ground for nastiness. In order to utilise that power in a positive manner, we really need to be aware of the ways in which social media can bring out or worse still, empower the Mean Girl.

It’s vital to understand how damaging what we do and say online can be to someone and to reach for compassion rather than a barbed jibe at someone else. How would you feel to be on the receiving end? Do I know everything about their story or am I making assumptions that fit my narrative of negativity? Remember that as women, we have great power in numbers so reach for our belonging rather than our differences.

Dr Nikki Stamp is a cardiothoracic surgeon, author of ‘Can You Die of a Broken Heart’ and TV presenter. She is an ardent supporter of women and of women’s health. 

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