What Is Toxic Femininity In The Workplace?

The concept of toxic femininity could allow us to better understand the impact of gender roles on leadership. But how much can it really help us change workplace dynamics?

We’ve all heard about toxic masculinity, the set of cultural norms around male behavior that teaches men to be tough, emotionally stunted, and overpowering—to the detriment of others, themselves, and often society at large. 

In the workplace, that can manifest as a male leader talking over his female colleagues, taking credit for their ideas, or refusing to give them a promotion in case they get pregnant. 

But what about toxic femininity? In an article for Forbes, occupational psychologist Dr Nancy Doyle (pictured below) argued that women overplaying so-called female traits at work, like passive aggressiveness or acting as an overprotective mother, can also be detrimental.


What is toxic femininity?

Nancy Doyle’s work on toxic femininity draws from the concept of the 'Drama Triangle', which posits that people can gravitate towards one of three toxic archetypal roles in the workplace. First, the Persecutor, who aggressively dismisses and scolds colleagues. Then, the Rescuer, who takes away others’ autonomy under the guise of caring for them. Finally, there’s the Victim, who controls from a position of powerlessness with passive aggression. 

Nancy argues that toxic masculinity in the workplace manifests in the form of the Persecutor, while toxic femininity channels the archetypes of the Rescuer and the Victim. 

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This may look like a female leader refusing to give an important project to a female colleague to make sure she doesn’t have too much work, a well-intentioned decision that might hinder that colleague’s career-building opportunities in the long term. Or a female manager taking on everyone’s work in addition to her own—what Nancy calls the “helicopter mommy that comes in and sorts you out”, but inches closer and closer to burnout. 

It’s important to note that those male and female traits that can be overplayed in the workplace are not biologically determined. "There's really no innate differences between a male brain and a female brain, but there's lots of socially constructed identities that make our behavior different,” Nancy explains. 

Gender norms, which have been embedded into society over centuries, result in unconscious biases about women’s positions in the workplace, which women internalize.

“Women can inadvertently subordinate themselves to others in the workplace and enact identities of a stereotypical mother, wife or daughter, rather than insisting on their own autonomy,” says Nela Smolovic-Jones, founder and director of the research cluster, Gendered Organisational Practice, at the Open University (OU), and lecturer in organization studies at the OU Business School’s Department for People and Organisations.


What are the consequences of toxic femininity?

For Nancy, overprotective leadership styles can curb productivity. “Toxic femininity means that nothing gets done,” she says. “Because everybody's so busy caring for each other, they don’t actually prioritize the job.”

While employees might feel initially cared for, they ultimately fail to learn anything if all their work is constantly micro-managed and completed on their behalf. “Not believing in your employees, not having faith in them, is the same as dismissing them,” Nancy explains. “Both of those things have the same net result, which is that the employee doesn't thrive and doesn't meet their potential.”

But it’s female leaders themselves who face the worst consequences. “The really insidious thing about toxic femininity is that it's women that it undermines the most,” Nancy says. It sets them up to fail, by limiting the kind of leadership styles available to them to either Victim or Rescuer. And if they stray away from motherly or passive aggressive behaviors and instead embodying the Persecutor, that means risking being labelled as difficult, which then threatens their authority.

“The thing that we've baked into women's psychology is that the most important part of femaleness is being likable,” Nancy says. But being a leader means making decisions that not everyone is going to agree with, so how exactly can women move away from this instinct to pander to everyone’s needs? 


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How to counteract toxic femininity

Nancy believes the solution to toxic femininity in the workplace resides in well-designed leadership courses, which teach women how to be just a little bit more ruthless.

“If you go on a leadership course right now, you will be taught how to be an empathetic leader, how to listen, how to be kind, how to put other people first, how to think about what the people who work for you need in order to bring them along with you. And the problem is, if you're female, you’ve already been trained to do that,” Nancy explains. 

“We set women up to fail by not teaching them how to be direct, by not teaching them how to hold people to account, by not teaching them boundaries,” she adds. 

Ultimately, Nancy would like to see more flexibility in leadership, with a good leader adopting a healthy balance between Rescuer, Victim, and Persecutor behaviors depending on context. 

“Is it appropriate to rescue people sometimes? Yes. Is it appropriate to ask your staff for their opinions? Yes. Is it appropriate for you to take the work on your shoulders? Yes. Is it appropriate for you to do that all the freakin’ time? No,” she says.


The limits of the concept of toxic femininity

But for Nela Smolovic-Jones (pictured below) and Melissa Carr—senior lecturer in leadership development at Bournemouth University—assuming that women have any control over the gender norms that constrain them is problematic. 

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“So-called ‘toxic femininity’ assumes women possess the uncontested agency to enact and shape their gender identity at will,” Nela says. “Women are always judged on the basis of their gender, including their ability to lead and how they should lead.”

Women are in a double bind where they can never win, explains Melissa, who is also the program coordinator for Bournemouth’s MSc Management with Human Resources. If they try to be assertive, they’re deemed aggressive or pushy. If they try to be caring, their leadership skills aren’t acknowledged or celebrated, and they’re characterized as weak. 


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The problem, according to Melissa and Nela, is that the concept of toxic femininity puts the responsibility on individual women to escape this double bind. It tells them that by regulating their behavior, they can steer away from the gender stereotypes that stifle them.

“Saying, for example, that we need to embrace behaviors ‘beyond gender’ is to gloss over the structural inequalities that underpin our day-to-day practices. It assumes we have the power to remove ourselves from the system we are in and to change our behaviors as we see fit,” Nela says. “The system needs to change, not individual women.” 

“We’re always performing gender,” Melissa (pictured below) adds. “The question should be, how do you challenge the gender roles in society, not women's behavior itself.” And for Melissa, that’s something that needs to be done by everyone, at the societal level.

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There seems to be one thing that all three experts agree on: the gender roles that are imposed upon women in the workplace hamper their ability to lead. But where they disagree is over the question of how to move away from deep-rooted gender stereotypes, and the extent to which we’re even able to do so.

Grappling with this question and the detrimental effect of toxic femininity is necessary to better understand how to best train and support women in leadership, and how to bring their male colleagues into the conversation. Only then will it be possible to change workplace dynamics. 


Next Read: The Limitations For Women In The Workplace


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