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Most women have 'Tall Poppy Syndrome' in the workplace, study finds

The study reveals that women who are successful are being bullied and belittled, challenged on their successes, and made to feel as though it's not their place to take up so much space.
Tall Poppy Syndrome describes the experience of being resented, criticized or bullied because of one's success in any capacity.

A new study has found nearly 90 per cent of women in the workplace have Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS).

Tall Poppy Syndrome describes the experience of being resented, criticized or bullied because of one's success in any capacity.

The study was conducted by Women of Influence, a global organization prioritizing gender equity in the work environment. It aimed to reveal the impacts of the syndrome on 4,710 women across 103 countries from all demographics and professions.

Rumeet Billan, who led the study, said that many respondents did not know this phenomenon had a name.

"Not only does our data reveal the negative effects of being cut down because of one's achievements, it helps us understand how the cutting is being done, who is most likely to do the cutting, and most importantly, legitimizes the experiences of women who, in many cases, have experienced this throughout their careers," she said.

Who are the main actors in TPS?

In their initial questionnaire, Billan says the study's respondents believed women are more likely to cut down other women. But the data suggested a different narrative.

The study found that male leaders were more likely to penalize or undermine women for their success. On the other hand, women tended to cut down their peers.

Cutting down doesn't equal bullying in the workplace. In fact, the study emphasizes that this action can be insidious and subtle.

The most common forms of cutting down include downplaying one's achievements (77 per cent), being ignored (72.4 per cent) and taking credit for another person's work (66.1 per cent).

What are the impacts of TPS?

The top three factors for a woman experiencing TPS in the office are jealousy, sexism and insecurity. 

Being tall poppied can also have negative impacts on mental health and general well-being. 

The study cites that 85.6 per cent of respondents had increased stress while 73.8 per cent had poor mental health. Also, more than half said their confidence decreased and they had burnout.

 Overall, more than 70 per cent of women said their productivity levels were impacted, and TPS created a culture of distrust in the workplace.

"Organizations often talk about the 'war for top talent,' when instead, there should be a focus on retaining top talent," said Billan.

"As a result of Tall Poppy Syndrome, high-performers are minimizing their skills and accomplishments. This not only negatively impacts the individual, but the organization as well."

What are the solutions?

In order to prevent TPS in the workplace, many respondents suggested:

  • raising awareness of Tall Poppy Syndrome;
  • workplace accountability and transparency;
  • creating a culture of zero tolerance; and
  • investing in women training programs and retention programs.

"Normalize promoting qualified women into positions of power," said one respondent.