Women are often at the receiving end of abusive superiors. Challenges that women, and specifically Black Women, face in the workplace are well documented; Gender and racial bias, sexual harassment, unequal pay, bullying, lack of access to mentors/sponsors and more. What happens when the power shifts and the women are in the leadership role? Do women make more toxic bosses than men?
- Women Are Judged More Harshly Than Men
I once posed this question to our Black Women in the Workplace Facebook community, and an interesting hypothesis came up. We often experience women as more toxic because we expect them to be nice. Research shows that behaviour that is acceptable and even laudable in men is often considered offensive when it is demonstrated by women. What is deemed as ambition, firmness and passion, might be interpreted as forward, mean and emotional if you’re a woman. Both genders are not judged by the same standards.
The Lean in/ Mckenzie Annual Women in the workplace report cited the ‘likability bias’ as one of the challenges women have to contend with. The likability bias refers to the fact that women are expected to be likeable. However, being nice can also be associated with the inability to lead. As a result, women find themselves in this double-bind, where they are expected and also punished for being nice; required and punished for displaying leadership qualities like firmness.
Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa Naspers first Black female CEO narrates an incident when she was still an intern. She approached this executive that was the only black woman in the leadership of that company and asked to be mentored. When the executive refused she was surprised and, on reflection, she realised that she had assumed that the woman should help her because she is a black woman. She had stereotyped her.
Could it be that women are not necessarily more toxic but they are judged more harshly than men? because they are expected to be likeable?
2. The Pressure to Prove Their Leadership Competence.
As a result of the historical exclusion of women and other races in corporate spaces; the stereotypical picture of corporate competent leadership is white and male. Women often find their competence doubted at best, this is compounded when they have to contend with racial bias as well as is the case for black women . Women in these positions find themselves under pressure to prove not only their competence to be in the position but their authority as well. Some women have opted to assimilate to masculine behaviours that are widely accepted as leadership qualities. They might decide to take on the tough stance as a way to protect themselves from being perceived as weak. Conventional advice on how women should behave in the workplace has evolved to allow for more authenticity, more displays of feminine behaviour, dressing, etc. however, that has not always been the case. Women often felt like they have to behave like one of the ‘boys’ to make it.
3. Women on Women Jealousy
We would like to believe that all women are matured and professional human beings who are so confident in themselves that they never feel jealous. However, the truth is jealousy is a human emotion, which is often a masked admiration for someone else’s qualities or achievements. We all feel jealous, even if it is for a moment before we remind ourselves to walk our own journey, stay grateful and that someone else’s win is not our loss.
In the case of women, we are often conditioned to be in competition with other women for the attention of men. I suppose this comes from the olden days where a girl child had to be married for economic survival. The chosen one, or one who displayed qualities – mainly looks, that made her more likely to be chosen over others was the one to be envied. Even in the workplace, there are often situations where female bosses have bullied their female subordinates just because of jealousy and embarrassingly of superficial qualities like beauty, youth and male attention. Women who have been victims of such abuse would prefer to work for men and would therefore consider women bosses as more toxic than men.
4. Generational Jealousy
Generational jealousy is a term that I heard for the first time during the ‘Fees must fall’ student protest. The term refers to older generations’ jealousy towards the younger generation for achieving what they had failed to achieve. Older women might feel jealous of younger women not only because of their youth and beauty but their perception of how easy it is for them to get ahead quickly in the workplace. They might feel that they had to work much harder and longer. The perception is that the younger women have had it too easy and have not paid their dues. This might be compounded by the younger women’s seemingly better understanding of the current market, their ease with the digital world might make these older women bosses feel like they are slowly becoming redundant.
5. Women are Human
Women are human and come in as many different personality types kinds as men do. Just as there are toxic, narcissistic, bullies who are men, the same applies to women. Women are often framed as motherly, people pleasers, emotional and/or weak at work. One often forgets that women can be just as mean as the meanest of men. Women can sometimes bring the high school mean girl stereotype to the workplace.
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