Toxic Femininity: We employ a paradigm called the “Drama Triangle” in my work as an organisational psychologist, in which there are archetypal roles toward which we gravitate when we are unsure or in conflict.
You may recall it from prior articles about workplace conflict that I’ve written.
There’s the Persecutor, a bully who yells at others and uses direct aggression to control them; the Rescuer, who takes over because “only they can” and uses undermining to control them; and the Victim, who exhibits powerlessness and uses passive aggression to control them.
Toxic Femininity At Work Paradigm
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We talk about the patriarchy in Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) work more broadly, models of power born out of centuries of combative rule in which a (typically white, abled, straight, cisgender) male holds power and dictates how everyone should act, based on his ideology, his great idea, or his whim.
Unfortunately, this fits well into the Persecutor position, and much leadership/culture study has been devoted to unpicking this dynamic in our workplaces, educating managers to be authentic, ethical, transformational, or servant leaders in recent decades. The desire to remedy for authoritarian, controlling behaviour in leaders has led to such initiatives.
However, because to millennia of social training, it is usually our species’ cisgender males who are more forthright and can become the persecutor. Since the 1970s, Dr. Virginia Schein’s research has discovered that humans tend to think of management attributes like ambition, decisiveness, and honesty as “masculine,” while traits like listening, empathy, and empowerment are “female.
” Dr. Schein’s recent research revealed that while women now link “female” attributes with management, men still believe that managers must have a “masculine” style. However, we are not born with these characteristics based on our gender; rather, they are developed in accordance with gender role conventions.
Genderization begins in the womb, when women carrying females sing to their bumps more frequently, so developing aural sensibility and later listening skills, and male babies are thrown in the air more frequently, thereby developing spatial awareness and later map reading skills.
What I’d like to discuss today is how any overused trait may be poisonous, and how rescuing and victimhood in management can be just as dysfunctional as workplace persecution.
Leading from a position of weakness
Allow me to provide some instances. A manager who believes an employee will be “overwhelmed” by a project that could provide them with senior leadership experience, sometimes owing to personal circumstances, and thus does not offer it to them (rescuing).
A coworker who has a propensity of saying yes to duties that are outside their jurisdiction (rescuing) and then becomes enraged because no one has noticed that they have too much on their plate and has said no for them (victimhood).
Any management style that entails direct reports being weak and in need of assistance or correction, or employee groups expecting their manager to read their minds, is doomed to fail.
The neglect of one person is the autonomy of another, and the assistance of one person is the micromanagement of another. We cross gender norms and leadership archetypes in these intricacies of individual taste, and we’re bound to get it wrong.
As more women, disabled and LGBTQIA+ people, as well as Black and Indigenous Peoples of Color, rise to positions of leadership, it’s time to rethink what “good” looks like. Minoritized leaders do not naturally have the overplayed persecutor’s hand that historical males do.
We’ve been socialised to expect submission, martyrdom, and passive aggression, so teaching us servant leadership models is more likely to make us submissive than to help us to lead.
For the correction, we need assertiveness training, not more listening skills. We also know that breaking out of our allocated type has negative consequences. direct/aggressive women are punished as “ballbreakers” or accused of acting like men, but a man who exhibits empathy is praised as a hero boss.
This traps us in a loop of toxic femininity, the overuse of so-called female characteristics, in which we can only lead from a position of powerlessness. In order to move forward with any strategy, everyone else’s assent is required, as well as our teams’ complete cooperation.
Minority opposition cannot be ignored for the sake of expediency; instead, it must be constantly negotiated, cajoled, and acknowledged in order to bring individuals “on board.”
This means that minoritized leaders devote more time to pastoral care than to thinking and innovating, and more time to justifying their actions than to creating bold goals.
Instead of transparent communication in meetings where everyone is present and involved, it entails backchannel chats to gather favour and line up support. It entails continually worrying about what other people think of us instead of focusing on the task at hand.
Pandering is not the same as empowering, and in a toxic feminine culture, managers are held captive by the team’s whims. It’s bad for our health, takes up a lot of time, reduces our productivity, and leads to subversive control techniques.
Adolescents Behaving Like Adults
Backstabbing and whining have been used to describe toxic femininity. It’s been described as a failure to assist fellow girls in their endeavours. I’ve even heard it defined as a patriarchal weapon for undermining femininity, and I’ve seen it used as a ruse to blame victims of abuse.
Toxic femininity in the workplace, on the other hand, is passive aggression; it’s when we let relationships and productivity suffer because we’re not being honest about our own goals, or when we assume we know best while putting on a “caring” façade.
It’s being a “Karen,” and it’s not a positive step away from patriarchal control structures. It may not entail yelling, but it still involves manipulating others.
Not martyrdom or rescuing are the antidotes to direct, persecutory assault. In our workplaces, we’re all acting like adults. The remedy to generations of toxic masculinity is leadership and membership behaviours and skills that are, honestly, beyond gender and suitably contextualised, rather than a new period of toxic femininity.
Employees can be encouraged to participate and take an active role in the workplace without feeling abandoned. Rather than rescuing, ask people what they want to happen and give them the tools to make it happen.
Rather than being a victim, express explicitly what you want to happen and enforce your own limits. Instead of persecuting, double-check your assumptions and focus on the pattern or process that needs to be improved, rather than the people.
I encourage all coworkers to emulate EDI values by communicating their desires and maintaining their personal boundaries. It’s not that you’re being unhelpful; it’s that you’re being transparent.
Maintain the ideals by discussing where you individually draw the line without stress or bitterness, with an open questioning heart that recognises our differences.
When your version of involvement is micromanagement and theirs is support, hold the values by assuming the best of each other and giving each other the benefit of the doubt. We seek appreciation of differences, not contempt, in our EDI work.
Taking Gender Out of Leadership
Whether we are from Mars or Venus, genderization of management and culture is toxic; the problem is the overplayed hand and gender bias, not the cis male or cis female norm. Both Patri and Matri must destroy the “Archy.” In our careers, neither of them allows us to mature and become grownups.
I had a lot of trouble including my pronouns in my bios and signatures. I really wanted to send a message to trans individuals that I am a safe space, but I couldn’t bring myself to give myself a gender because it isn’t relevant to my business.
I’ve decided on “she/her – gender non conforming,” which I believe captures the essence of the situation.
We are impeding the fluidity essential for the dynamic workplaces of the twenty-first century by encasing ourselves in antiquated assumptions about cis male and cis female features.
We need leaders who can work in a complicated environment and apply situational reflexivity, not those who are biologically programmed to behave in a specific way.
We’re also preventing leaders who are disabled, female, LGBTQIA+, or BIPoC from taking the stage. Here’s to the post-gender workplace and the potential for innovation it could bring.