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Between Maggie Thatcher in The Iron Lady and Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep has played some pretty tough bosses in her movies. So when I got the umpteenth request from professional women – readers, clients and friends – to explain the phenomenon of lady bully bosses (i.e., biologically grown up mean girls), I thought I’d turn to her movies for enlightenment. You see, I’ve never worked for a mean girl boss, I don’t have sisters or daughters and it’s been way too long since I was in high school where I have faint memories of studying them in their breeding grounds.

The movies were only slightly more insightful than my long-lost memory. Streep is so good at giving characters depth (the reason she keeps winning Oscars!) that even her lady bitches have potentially admirable motives. And that’s the catch. Based on my interviews of real professional women who have worked for mean girl bosses, the big difference between Streep’s characters and real bully bosses is that, as seen through the eyes of their direct reports, queen bee jerks have no motive other than to win a competition that is usually only played by other jerks (of both genders).

How Can She Be So Mean?

Everyone wants to know how women can be so mean to other women, so I set about to see if I could discover answers. Many people had theories – like the cave girl needs to compete for the attention of men to father good-gened babies – but there really seemed only three credible core motivations that came through in every story.

Insecurity: The most common characteristic of the real mean girls I found was insecurity. One client, D, found herself working for a woman VP who kept her door shut, arranged every meeting so she came in late, controlled the agenda from the moment she entered the room, used passive-aggressive techniques to be “in control”, made decisions without telling anyone and wouldn’t discuss them after they’d leaked out. My client, being a very straightforward woman, very secure in her knowledge and expertise and inexperienced with such bosses, was unprepared for this and didn’t realize that she was inadvertently threatening her boss by refusing to play the game – until it was too late and she was on her way out (in one of those decisions that no one knew about until the CEO signed her demotion papers.) She never really saw it coming.

Competition: Another common characteristic I found was competition, which is often stimulated by insecurity. My friend N described a mean-girl-down between two female VPs (N being the third woman VP, a neutral party who both would talk to about the other) that had broken out into straight-out competition. But they weren’t competing for work bennies (e.g., raises, authority, budget); they were competing to win the catfight against each other. Any benefit, attention from the CEO, acknowledgment of unhappiness from the other – anything that could be construed as a “win” over the other  – counted in their invisible scorekeeping. One of the women literally pulled a stunt out of the movie Mean Girl by putting fattening treats in a bowl on her desk that she put out for the other woman to eat – who did! And gained weight! And the first one admitted gleefully (win!) that her plot had worked!

The Gender-Neutral Bully Virus: There is one other common factor I find in the real world, which is that most mean girl bosses work for bully bosses as well – both men and women – who tolerate their behavior. The typical “man” meanness and “woman” meanness might manifest slightly differently, but a jerk boss is a jerk boss and the pattern seems to repeat and reinforce itself across gender lines. I came away from the stories I heard feeling that bully bosses seem to be a bit like a virus that can take over an organization’s culture. The virus rewards and promotes itself, twisting the environment to be unpleasant for everyone, rewarding to those who can play underhanded betrayal games and fulfilling the game-player’s warped sense of self above competence and company goals. Once it’s reached these proportions, you’re not only fighting an individual mean girl (or boy), you’re fighting an entire dysfunctional culture and your individual chances of winning go down exponentially.

The Hollywood View

The Streep movies played primarily on the competitiveness theme, and even so I found them a bit out of sync with the real women I spoke to. Although mean girl competition was played up in The Devil Wears Prada, it didn’t manifest as a tempt-her-to-get-fat catfight. Rather, the game was played out on a male game board instead. Miranda Priestly (Streep’s character) thwarts a coup by her boss and another female colleague, pulling a masterful chess move, to keep her job. Through the movie camera lens, the queen had to sacrifice her knight, who took it royally and opted to stay in the game despite the betrayal, but she did lose a would-be apprentice pawn in the process (Anne Hathaway). Miranda Priestly had mastered the man’s game of chess, but she could have been so much worse, she could have been a bitchy cat fighter too. The way Streep played her, Miranda Priestly was worthy of grudging respect in the end, even if you didn’t agree with her values.

In a recent interview, I heard Streep quoted as saying that Miranda Priestly is the only role she’s ever played (in 30 years on film!) that a man told her he could empathize with. To me this speaks to the strong possibility that The Devil Wears Prada may not have been an authentic mean girl story, but a Hollywood fabrication mixing male and female patterns.

In The Iron Lady, Maggie Thatcher was raised to play the man’s game and played it masterfully, to the point that her foibles and flaws were portrayed as identical to any man’s: family neglect and stubbornness. The movie never even put her in the room with another woman unless it was to contrast her with the kind of woman she wasnt. In her generation, of course, there really weren’t other women playing the game of top-level, cut-throat politics of party leadership – so perhaps it portrayed reality quite well. I don’t really know, but I didn’t gain much insight into Thatcher’s unique feminine challenges other than that she had to give up her hat, update her hairstyle and that she won (and ultimately lost) the male game – on the male game’s terms.

I came away from both movies unclear whether either story was authentic to the reality of what women in top positions can be, or are, when they have to be tough to get the job done. I also didn’t see that the actual Streep characters – unlike the movie posters and trailers – were true mean girl bosses. They played more into the pattern that women who succeed in a man’s world are perceived in our culture as unattractive, which is verified by research. Meryl Streep’s characters certainly didn’t portray the more familiar authenticity that Mean Girls did with the candy-eating travesty. My bottom line takeaway from my movie research is that even in the stories we tell ourselves about female bully bosses, we don’t really know what an authentic bitch looks like on film. Maybe truth is really stranger than fiction.

The larger lesson

In a later post I’ll provide some advice for how to handle a mean girl boss when you find yourself working for one, but there is a final thought I had as I concluded this first round of research. As I said above, after talking to women more experienced than I, my ultimate conclusion is that jerks are jerks no matter what gender guise they wear in the game. When we try to explain their behavior “because she’s a woman”, if we’re not careful we end up letting them off the hook for being jerks. Let’s not do that, ok? Just because she’s a woman doesn’t mean we have to try to find a justification. If we want equality, we have to accept that women can be jerks, a-holes and bitches too – and deal with this reality for what it is – a powerlessness (e.g., insecurity) masquerading as power. I really believe that when we can do this, we’re on our way to authentic equality.

Do you know what an authentic bitch boss looks like? Are you a recovered Mean Girl? Do any of the movies get it right? Have you worked for a mean girl boss? Contribute to my next post and tell me what you did to survive. Did you keep your integrity intact? Do you think men and women have the same jerk virus or is it meaningfully different? We’ve all encountered these people, what lessons have you learned? Pass on your wisdom in comment below!

This post originally appeared on InPower Women. I am a leadership consultant, coach and women’s InPowerment advocate. I started InPower Women to activate The Woman Effect and rewrite the feminist narrative on women and power. Follow me! (I follow back) LinkedIn Google+ Twitter