If you’re a woman who has been the subject of manipulative emotional tactics, never-ending competition, or a catty attitude at work, then chances are you’ve experienced toxic femininity. In a nutshell, toxic femininity is harmful, gender-based behaviors often perpetuated by women, reinforcing stereotypical notions of what being ‘feminine’ is all about.
Toxic femininity, like toxic masculinity, essentially means when “traditional” gender-based stereotypes are portrayed or expected in such a way that harms or limits women or female-presenting individuals. For example, when a woman acts supportive and nurturing to another woman when she is bad-mouthing that woman behind her back, this is a form of toxic femininity. While both male and female stereotypes have been established for centuries, it is up to both men and women to push past these stereotypes to avoid both masculine and feminine toxicity.
Toxic femininity is a complex issue that can take many forms. It refers to harmful behaviors or attitudes displayed by individuals who identify as women. These behaviors can include undermining, backstabbing, gossiping, or exhibiting a competitive or unsupportive attitude toward other women. It is important to note that toxic femininity is not representative of all women or a universal experience but rather a subset of behaviors displayed by some individuals. This can often result in the tolerance of hostile work environments and even discourage women from climbing the corporate ladder, facilitating a lack of diversity in corporate leadership positions.
The phrase “toxic femininity” refers to the detrimental and unfavorable ways women may support sexist ideals and stereotypes through certain behaviors, ideals, and perspectives to get ahead, be valued, or be validated in a male-dominated work environment. It may show up in many ways, such as:
- Backstabbing and gossiping. Women who practice toxic femininity may spread rumors, engage in backstabbing, or gossip about other women.
- Comparing oneself to other women. Women who practice toxic femininity may do so in relation to their personal life, jobs, or outward appearances.
- Playing the victim. Women who practice toxic femininity could do so to win over others’ pity or attention.
- Blaming others. Women who practice toxic femininity may blame other women for their difficulties, such as their lack of achievement or miserable marriages.
Workplace discrimination can be anything from subtle microaggressions to outright discrimination. It can also come in the form of “queen bee syndrome,” where one woman who wants to rise to the top will actively suppress the chances of other women.
Examples include female employers refusing to accept postpartum depression as a valid reason for the lower-than-usual performance of employees who have just returned from maternity leave and female colleagues shaming their subordinates for coming to the office with and without makeup on two occasions. During lunchtime chats, it’s common for moms to compare birth stories and declare themselves as the only ‘real mothers’ just because they gave birth a certain way.
Toxic femininity in the workplace refers to behaviors rooted in traditional gender roles and stereotypes that may damage women. These behaviors can include competition among female colleagues, aggressive and critical communication styles, or placing a higher value on traditionally “feminine” skills and roles. Toxic femininity can lead to a hostile work environment and limit the potential for professional growth and success. It is important to recognize these behaviors and encourage an inclusive work environment where everyone can thrive.
Who is most likely to experience toxic femininity?
Toxic femininity in the workplace tends to be more pervasive among marginalized groups: young women in entry-level positions and certain racial and ethnic minorities. Overall, it is clear that the pressure to conform to traditional gender roles can hurt both young women of color and mothers.
Research has shown that toxic femininity disproportionally affects women of color, particularly young African American women. Women of color often face greater societal oppression and stigmas than other women. Additionally, they face additional pressure to conform to gender expectations within their communities.
Studies have also found that mothers are more likely to experience toxic femininity than other women, as traditional gender roles are often placed upon them. This can lead to feelings of guilt or inadequacy, as mothers are expected to juggle all their responsibilities while being the “perfect” mother. Toxic femininity, like other microaggressions, may have specific implications for mothers in the workplace. While toxic feminity among women of all age groups and ethnicities occurs, new mothers suffer the most in the corporate world, perhaps because they’re generally at a vulnerable stage and an easier target for bullies.
From society guilting working mothers for leaving their children to have a career to teachers judging them for being the reason for their children’s poor performance at school, mothers are never spared, even in 2023. Even some interviewers aren’t kind to mothers joining the workforce, speculating whether they can work long-term due to their probable domestic duties.
Mothers often face the “motherhood penalty” in the workplace, which includes disadvantages such as limited career advancement opportunities, restricted access to flexible work arrangements, and judgments about their commitment to work. Mothers may face additional challenges and biases in balancing work and family responsibilities, such as assumptions about their commitment or competence. The pressures and expectations placed on working mothers can contribute to a toxic work environment if they are subjected to unfair treatment, judgment, or exclusion. These factors contribute to a toxic environment for mothers and can amplify the effects of toxic femininity.
Women who are mothers are particularly vulnerable to toxic femininity, as they often face additional pressures when it comes to balancing their home and work life. This can create a hostile environment where women feel their achievements are overlooked or are expected to work harder than their male counterparts. Toxic femininity can hit moms like a double whammy. On top of dealing with issues like the motherhood penalty and balancing work and family, they often face judgment for needing flexibility, and their commitment to work can be undermined. It’s another hurdle on an already bumpy track.
It is also crucial to recognize that experiences may vary for individuals based on intersectionality—the combination of multiple aspects of their identity, such as gender, race, age, and more. Intersectionality can influence how individuals experience and respond to toxic behaviors, as they may face unique challenges and biases based on multiple dimensions of their identity.
At what stage of a woman’s career is the most likely to experience toxic femininity?
Toxic femininity can be present at any level of a woman’s career. This behavior can include gossiping, backstabbing, and undermining other women in the workplace. It is often seen as a way for women to gain power and status in a male-dominated environment. It is an issue that can manifest itself in different ways, such as through pressure to conform to gender expectations or competition between women. This can be especially difficult for women starting their careers, as they may feel more vulnerable or less able to speak up against these pressures.
As a team member, how do I combat toxic femininity?
You can take a few steps to combat toxic femininity in the workplace, including:
- Speak with a dependable friend or coworker. By sharing your feelings with someone you can trust, you can process them and develop coping mechanisms.
- Toxic behavior should be documented, especially if it is severe. Keeping a log of communications, meetings, or other evidence may fall under this category.
- Inform your supervisor about the behavior if it is particularly poisonous. You might want to do so if the behavior is particularly toxic.
- Seek professional assistance. If the toxic behavior gives you a lot of worry or anxiety, you might want help from a professional. A therapist can assist you in creating coping skills and managing the emotional effects.
- Propose to upper management for educational sessions/workshops from a professional to be implemented to improve the company culture.
As an employer, how do I combat toxic femininity?
When it comes to the likelihood of experiencing toxic femininity in the workplace, it is essential to avoid generalizations based on age or racial groups. Toxic behaviors can manifest in any workplace, regardless of age or racial demographics. Factors such as workplace culture, leadership styles, and individual personalities play a more significant role in determining the prevalence of toxic femininity.
Toxic femininity occurs when managers or other employees silo women into traditional stereotypes of how women should think, work, or act in the workplace. Such stereotyping is corrosive for organizations because it will encourage otherwise highly competent women to leave the company and take their valuable firm-specific human capital.
Workplaces that foster a competitive or unsupportive environment may inadvertently encourage toxic behavior among employees, regardless of age or racial background. Similarly, ineffective management or a lack of policies addressing such behaviors can contribute to their persistence.
Ultimately, women need to create spaces where they feel safe to express themselves and collaborate without the fear of judgment or disparagement. The best way to combat toxic femininity is to create a workplace culture that is inclusive and supportive of all genders. This means having policies and procedures that protect all employees from discrimination and harassment. Additionally, it is essential to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable speaking up and voicing their opinions. This can be done through regular training and education on unconscious bias and gender equality.
Women’s professional and personal lives can suffer significantly from toxic femininity, and so can their mental health. Women who experience toxic femininity can have a lower chance of getting promoted, making less money, and quitting their jobs altogether. They are also keen to suffer from anxiety, despair, and low self-esteem.
Toxic femininity is a prickly issue we must tackle for a friendlier, supportive workplace. By spreading the word, encouraging open chats, and pushing for an atmosphere of mutual respect, we can start to dismantle these harmful norms and make the workplace a nicer place for everyone to be.