Complex intersectionality compounds workplace bullying for women of color

Reviewed by Sakshee Chawla

Living at the intersection of multiple systems of oppression makes Black women disproportionately vulnerable to workplace bullying in higher education.


The article examines the impact of workplace bullying’ on the self-determination and career advancement of marginalized populations in education. Workplace bullying refers to persistent patterns of harmful, targeted mistreatment by individuals from the dominant culture that exploit position and power to physically or emotionally cause harm to those in marginalized positions. Originally coined by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, the term intersectionality provides us with “a prism to see the interactive effects of various forms of discrimination” (Crenshaw, 2018). Research on intersectionality indicates the importance of considering the multiplicity of an individual’s identities in recognizing the compounding, overlapping power structures that work to disenfranchise marginalized groups. 

Dr. Hollis’ research found that workplace bullying was compounded for individuals who held two or more marginalized identities that place them at the intersection of overlapping systems of privilege and oppression. Since prior research on workplace bullying comes from Northern European countries with relatively homogenous populations, this study examines the impact of workplace bullying in the American context, where social identity is a contributing factor in an individual’s propensity to experience workplace bullying.
Dr. Leah P. Hollis serves as an associate professor in the Department of Advanced Studies, Leadership & Policy at Morgan State University. Her 2012 book, Bully in the Ivory Tower: How Aggression and Incivility Erode American Higher Education, helped 125 colleges address incivility and bullying on campus. Her research focuses on healthy workplaces and issues relating to at-risk students and college athletics.

Methods and Findings

The author acknowledges the methodological challenges associated with studying intersectionality. Therefore, Hollis uses quantitative research to explore how the myriad of identities held by women of color increase their likelihood for workplace bullying and vicarious workplace bullying. Vicarious bullying refers to an action where the bully uses a subordinate to abuse and harass a third-party. This form of bullying allows the bully to be viewed as a nice and empathetic person despite orchestrating harm. 

The study used national survey data from 669 faculty and staff from four-year and two-year schools mentioned in the Higher Education Publications, a directory of higher education professionals. Using a chi-square test, the author examined the prevalence of bullying for individuals whose social identity makes them vulnerable to multiple overlapping systems of oppression. Although two recent studies in the field reported a small decline in workplace bullying trends, Hollis found it to be a persistent problem, with 58% of participants in the study reporting workplace bullying. The study further dissected the results by race, religion, and gender/sexual identity to assess the role of overlapping systems of oppression in hurting Black women’s chances in the workplace. The study found that as an individual’s intersectionality of identity becomes more complex, their likelihood of experiencing both workplace bullying, as well as vicarious workplace bullying, proportionately increases. Open-ended responses to the questionnaire pointed to the hierarchies of power in the workplace and its impact on making women of color more susceptible to workplace bullying. In particular, Black women often face unfair demotion, threats of job loss, or forced job changes to escape a bully. These events cause physical and mental trauma, and hurt career prospects for Black women.


Dr. Hollis recommends that human resource professionals in higher education conduct annual policy audits. These audits should ensure higher education institutions are not merely espousing fairness in opportunity, pay, and promotion in their mission statements but that these values are implemented uniformly across the organization. Further, the author advocates that the institutional office overseeing academic programs and departments encourages the inclusion of social justice in the curriculum. Finally, colleges and universities should appoint an ombudsman, an official trained in diversity management, who would hear the academic community’s concerns and investigate complaints against maladministration. 

Existing research on employee rights, discrimination, and harassment does not use an intersectional lens to examine the power structures that create a disenfranchised experience for marginalized individuals. This article urges policymakers and human resource professionals, to recognize the complexities within the population. Individuals designing and implementing policies must analyze the multiple identities embodied by an individual concurrently, instead of dissecting their identities into specific categories. This more complete and sophisticated analysis would better reflect how policies are experienced by individuals living at the intersection of different forms of discrimination.


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