Is There A 'Feminist' Way To Critique Bad Women Bosses?
Is your female boss actually toxic? Or are you just sexist? (It's complicated.)
Tarisha didn’t think an email would get her fired. But, in hindsight, it was probably inevitable: Her boss, Kate*, was famous for having a short stature and a temper to match. After seven months working as an analyst in the consumer-goods industry, Tarisha could no longer stomach seeing Kate’s angry, thick red scrawl marking up her work; it felt demeaning. So she wrote her boss an email asking her to provide feedback in a different way — “I didn’t get wild,” she adds. “It was very professional.”
The morning after she hit send, Tarisha found herself sitting in a conference room as Kate yelled at her and the company’s CEO and president. “You’re telling me you’re not going to fire her?” she screamed before storming off. Cooler heads prevailed, and Tarisha kept her job.
This wasn’t the first time Tarisha had been on the receiving end of Kate’s anger, and she was frustrated. “It felt like she was intentionally trying to find things I was doing wrong all the time,” Tarisha recalls.
But weeks later, Kate finally got her way — all because Tarisha misread her calendar.
One morning, Tarisha showed up to work in a pair of blue jeans. And while she swears she wasn’t the only one casually dressed, before long Kate came barreling down to her cubicle, red-faced and screaming about Tarisha’s attire. Tarisha apologized, having mistakenly thought it was "casual day," and offered to go home to change. Kate told her to leave the office — and not to come back.
Tarisha packed up her things and left an empty cubicle behind. But along with the distress of being fired came the subtle nagging feeling that she never wanted to work for a woman again — because this wasn’t the first time she’d worked for an unreasonable manager who was also female. “There was a part of me that was scared to have another woman boss because I’d had two unpleasant encounters back to back,” Tarisha says. “Without knowing more about their backgrounds, their gender was the only readily available pattern I could discern.”
There was a part of me that was scared to have another woman boss because I’d had two unpleasant encounters back to back.
For women who work for women, generalizing based on toxic behaviour can be a fraught experience. After all, a bad leader is bad — regardless of their gender. And yet, female bosses (including the bad ones) often end up being scrutinized far more harshly than their male counterparts. Given the long-established trope of the “bad female boss,” there have been questions around whether such criticism is sexist. Gender stereotypes have created no-win situations for many women leaders — they’re viewed as either competent or likeable, but very rarely both. Everything from the tone of a woman’s voice to her choice of attire is relentlessly critiqued in a manner that few male leaders experience.
Recent news about Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar’s Jekyll-and-Hyde persona struck a resonant chord for many women who’ve worked for horrible female bosses. According to reports from The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed News, Klobuchar is prone to verbal abuse, belittlement, and dictatorial behaviour, despite her public-facing friendly Midwestern image. Klobuchar’s former aides (who remained anonymous) say they are aware of the double standards but insist sexism has nothing to do with their criticisms. And for anyone who’s worked for a toxic female boss, frustration with such concerns is understandable: Because women are so often treated unfairly, sometimes behaviour that is truly abusive gets written off.
This bind — between having to cope with a "toxic female boss" and worrying your feelings could be sexist — can fuel a simmering resentment, and creates a constant dilemma: After all, turning a blind eye only works to perpetuate toxic behaviour by giving female leaders a free pass.
Fabi*, 23, works in a female-dominated industry and has had her own share of experiences with toxic woman bosses, including one who regularly “blew up” at interns and treated junior staff poorly. “I definitely had moments where I went into a bad headspace when trying to determine why they were an ineffective leader,” Fabi says, adding that she had to resist reductive reasoning that suggested her boss’s reactions were tied to her gender. However, she also understood the danger in letting bad behaviour slide for the same reason: "It can be easy to give certain things a pass for the sake of being a good ally or a good feminist," she says.
Still, looking back at some of her experiences in women-dominated workspaces, Fabi can’t help but draw a parallel: "It can be hard if women in leadership positions treat the office like high school."
According to Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, which served as the inspiration for the 2004 Tina Fey film Mean Girls, this analogy is actually spot-on. “It makes sense, because it’s a group of people working together to receive social status or belonging,” Wiseman explains. Whenever there are people in a position of leadership — whether in a corporation or on a high school campus — similar social patterns fall into place. “It’s essentially the same dynamic — we’re just a little older,” Wiseman says.
Wiseman explains that a lot of toxic female behaviour at work is rooted in a scarcity mindset established in childhood and adolescence. "If a group of people is raised to believe they have a limited amount of access to power, they will do what they can to hold on to as much power as possible," she says. These subconscious attitudes often lead to problematic behaviours, such as the need to go after those who represent a threat. Unfortunately, in some cases, this means other women.
If a group of people is raised to believe they have a limited amount of access to power, they will do what they can to hold on to as much power as possible.
And yet, your bad female boss is also just one person, and shouldn’t represent all women, says Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work. Tannen has written prolifically about the difficult circumstances facing many women in positions of authority. The tendency to judge all women by the actions of one individual, Tannen says, stems from a long-established set point: When a group of people, such as men, is seen as "standard," we interpret individual behaviour from within that group as representative of just one person. But for women? “We take them to represent their entire gender,” says Tannen.
Jaime Klein, the founder and president of Inspire HR, who has worked in human resources for over 20 years, echoes Tannen’s view. “Because women have been the minority in positions of power, they are under the microscope,” Klein says, adding that many times male leaders who exhibit concerning behaviors are tolerated as having personal quirks, while women showing similar traits are not. “Organizations explain away this type of bad behaviour in men by saying, ‘It’s just how they communicate.’ ”
Of course, knowing that women are criticized more harshly than men for the same bad behaviour doesn’t make things easier when you’re dealing with a bad female boss. The question is: What to do if faced with one? Tannen says that obligatory and unquestioning solidarity is something we must move away from. And that starts with first stepping back and asking yourself: "Am I holding everyone to the same standard?"
“The challenge,” Tannen says, “is to know which situation you’re in.” If, after you have stepped back and established that an individual’s behaviour is truly disruptive or negative — regardless of the person’s gender — then, she says, “it’s a requirement that you deal with it in the same way that you would if your boss was a man.”
Today, Fabi continues working in a female-dominated industry. And though she’s certainly faced challenges with bosses who lack basic leadership skills and inspire workplace dynamics reminiscent of high school, she says she’s ultimately grown from these experiences, both professionally and personally. “It’s helped me understand what I seek in a boss and not take everything personally,” she says.
In spite of her struggles with bad female bosses, Fabi strives not to blame gender for bad behaviour. “I’ve found it important to try to critique them in a way that doesn't perpetuate narratives that women aren't good leaders,” she says, though she admits this isn’t always easy. “It's easy to get caught up in thinking, ‘She's just a bitch,’ but despite her behaviours, she isn't actually a bitch — she's just a bad boss.”
Editor's note: This article originally credited The New York Times with breaking the news of Amy Klobuchar and has been updated to indicate that The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed News reported on this story first.