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Food for Thought: Workplace Gossip as a Lever of Power

April 21, 12:00 pm - 1:00 pm

The Poisoned Water-cooler: Workplace Gossip as a Lever of Power

Laura Kavanagh, First Deputy Commissioner, New York City Fire Department

The role gossip plays in organizational dynamics is understudied, particularly in examinations of organizational change and reform. It is most often seen as an unserious form of communication, best to be ignored by management. To the contrary, research shows gossip to be a potent social process that helps protect the status quo, perpetuate institutional power, and silence dissent.

There has been recent attention drawn to the insidious impacts of gossip-like discourse against women in public life, through powerful coverage of famous women like Meghan Markle and Britney Spears. In fact, this type of corrosive sex and race-based gossip is prevalent for women in all areas of public life and leadership.

This discourse has particularly negative impacts on women, because it taps into existing stereotypes that paint women as unserious and weak. In contrast, negative coverage of men rarely takes aim at their power and status. In fact, studies show that when both genders are the targets of negative press coverage, that coverage disproportionately causes women to drop out of leadership compared to their male counterparts. This is compounded by online harassment, like trolling and doxing, that is almost exclusively targeted at women.

Understanding the corrosive impacts of gossip is essential for managers. Organizations might have strong programs for mentoring diverse candidates for leadership but are losing those candidates before they become leaders. This is often because they are ignoring the ways organizations unofficially cause those future leaders to feel unwelcome and unsupported.  Understanding these unofficial systems is as important as making official policy in seeking organizational change.

Key questions that will be explored further:

  • The direct link between gossip, the perpetuation of institutional power, and the lack of diversity in senior leadership roles
  • How this form of power is yielded almost exclusively against women, and particularly women of color, by using sex and race-based stereotypes that seek to disempower and shame them
  • How today’s web based social platforms amplify and accelerate these trends and perpetuate more violent forms of harassment such as physical threats, trolling, hacking, and doxing
  • How employers can recognize and combat these tactics in their organizations
  • The need for stricter legal mechanisms that hold bad actors accountable for targeting people online
  • Proactive steps employers can implement to protect the targets of this type of harassment, and make their institutions more diverse as a result
Event Contact Information:
Valerie Zimmer


April 21
12:00 pm - 1:00 pm
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New York, NY Online United States
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Columbia University
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