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Posted 15 Jul 2021

We Need To Talk About Toxic Femininity At Work

In my work as an organizational psychologist we use a model called the “Drama Triangle,” in which there are archetypal roles towards which we gravitate when we are unsure or in conflict. You may remember it from previous pieces I have written about workplace conflict.

There is the Persecutor, a bully who tells people off and controls with direct aggression; Rescuer, who takes over because “only they can” and controls by undermining; and Victim, who expresses powerlessness and controls with passive aggression.

In Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) work more broadly, we talk about the patriarchy, models of power born out of centuries of combative rule where a (typically white, abled, straight, cisgender) male holds power and dictates how everyone should act, according to his ideology, his great idea or his whim. This can sadly map neatly onto the Persecutor role and in recent decades a lot of research in leadership/culture has been devoted to unpicking this dynamic in our workplaces, training managers to be authentic, ethical, transformational or servant leaders. Such actions have emerged from a need to correct for autocratic, controlling behavior in leaders.

However, due to millenia of social conditioning, it is usually the cisgender males of our species who tend more towards the directness which can become the persecutor. In leadership, Dr Virginia Schein’s work has, since the 1970s, found that we tend to assume management traits of ambition, decisiveness, candor are “male”, whereas traits such as listening, empathy, empowerment are “female.” Dr Schein’s recent work illustrated that women now associate “female” traits with management, but men still think managers need to be “male” in their style. But we aren’t born with these traits according to our sex, they are made in accordance with gender role norms. Genderization starts as early as in utero where women carrying females sing to their bumps more frequently thus building auditory perception, later listening skills, whereas male babies are thrown in the air more, thus building spatial awareness, later map reading.

What I want to talk about today is how any overplayed trait can be toxic, and that rescuing and victimhood in management is just as dysfunctional as persecution in a workplace.

Leading From A Disempowered Position

Let me give you some examples. A manager who assumes her/their/his employee will be “overwhelmed” by a project that might give them senior leadership exposure, perhaps due to personal circumstances and therefore does not offer it to them (rescuing). A colleague who habitually says yes to tasks which are outside their remit (rescuing) and then begins to hold a grudge because no one has noticed that they have too much on and has said no for them (victimhood). Any management style which involves direct reports being powerless and needing help or correction, or employee groups who require their manager to mind read needs is doomed to failure. One person’s neglect is another person’s giving autonomy, one person’s support is another person’s micromanagement. In these nuances of individual preference, we overlap gender expectations and leadership archetypes, and we are bound to get it wrong.

As women, disabled and LGBTQIA+ people, as well as Black, Indigenous People of Colour increasingly become leaders, it is time to re-examine the tales we tell about leadership and what “good” looks like. The overplayed hand of persecutor on the part of historical males does not come naturally to minoritized leaders. We are socially conditioned to already be at a baseline of deference, martyrdom and passive aggression that teaching us servant leadership models is more likely to make us servile, than enable us to lead.

We need assertiveness training for the correction, not more listening skills. We also know that breaking out of our assigned mold lands badly – direct/aggressive women are chastised as “ballbreakers”, or accused of behaving like men, whereas a man who demonstrates empathy will be lauded as a hero boss. This traps us in a cycle of toxic femininity, the overplayed hand of the so-called female traits in which we can only lead from a position of our own disempowerment. Everyone else’s agreement becomes necessary, with 100% consent from our teams, in order to proceed with any plan. Any minority dissent cannot be overruled for expediency, it must be constantly negotiated, cajoled and conceded to bring people “on side.” This means minoritized leaders spend more time in pastoral care than dreaming and innovating, more time in explaining themselves than making ambitious plans. It means backchannel conversations to corral favor and line up support rather than transparent communication in meetings where all are present and engaged. It means constantly worrying about what people think of us, rather than engaging with the task. Pandering is not the same as empowerment, in toxic femininity culture managers are held hostage to the whims of the team.  It is unhealthy, time consuming, limits our productivity and leads to subversive styles of control.

Behaving Like Adults

I have heard toxic femininity described as backstabbing and bitching. I have heard it described as failing to support fellow females in their success. I have even heard it described as a tool of the patriarchy to undermine femininity and seen it used manipulatively as a cover for blaming victims of abuse. But for workplace, toxic femininity is passive aggression, it’s when we allow relationships and productivity to suffer because we’re not being honest about our own objectives, or when we are assuming we know best with a “caring” face. It’s being a “Karen” and it’s not a step forward from patriarchal systems of control. It might not involve yelling, but it’s still manipulating other people.

The opposite of direct, persecutory aggression is not martyrdom or rescuing. It is all of us acting like adults in our workplaces. The answer to centuries of toxic masculinity is not a new era of toxic femininity, it is leadership and membership behaviors and skills that are, frankly, beyond gender and appropriately contextualized.

Members of a workplace can be encouraged to join in, take an active role, without being abandoned. Instead of rescuing, ask people what they would like to have happen and give them the tools to do it themselves. Instead of being a victim, state clearly what you would like to have happen and police your own boundaries. And instead of persecuting, check your assumptions and instead notice the pattern or process that needs fixing, not the people.

I encourage all colleagues to role model EDI values by stating what you want and holding your own boundaries. It’s not being unhelpful, it’s being clear. Hold the values by engaging in discussion about where you each draw the line, without angst or resentment, with an open curious heart that knows we are all different. Hold the values by assuming the best of each other and giving each other the benefit of the doubt when your version of involvement is micromanagement but theirs is support. In EDI work we seek appreciation of differences cooperation not contempt.

Removing Gender From Leadership

Genderization of management and culture is toxic whether we are from Mars or Venus, it’s the overplayed hand and the gender bias that is the problem, not the cis male or cis female norm. We need to smash the “Archy” – both Patri and Matri. Neither allow us to grow up and be adults in our careers. I really struggled with adding my pronouns to my bios and signature. I really wanted to signal to trans people that I am a safe space, but I was also stuck on assigning myself a gender, as I don’t see it as relevant to my work. I’ve settled on “she/her – gender non conforming” which I think makes the point.

By hemming ourselves into outdated stereotypes about cis male and cis female traits we are preventing the fluidity required for the complex workplaces that exist in the twenty first century. We need leaders who can operate in complexity and apply situational reflexivity, not biologically determined to stay within a narrow band of behavior. And we are undermining disabled, female, LGBTQIA+ and BIPoC leaders from taking the stage. Here’s to the post-gender workplace and the creativity it might herald.