I consider myself a fairly strong female. Not in a particularly managerial or leadership sense; I’ve just learned to embrace the shit I’ve experienced in my career and develop a stronger sense of self as a result. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve cried in hospitality kitchens and held back tears in corporate just long enough to scamper into the loo post-meeting to let it all out – but I can say with confidence that I am a far more robust version of myself than I was a decade ago.
That said, my ability to stand up for myself, voice my option and hold back the aforementioned corporate tears were all skills learned in toxic workplaces. At the age of 29, I’ve experienced toxicity at work in many forms. From chefs verbally abusing female staff in the hospitality industry to being gaslit by management in my first corporate office job in marketing, I attribute much of my resilience to these tough work experiences, and I’m not alone. Like other women, I find myself buffering these experiences with a humble insertion of some derivative of the phrase ‘but I wouldn’t change it because it made me who I am today.’
So it begs the question: are toxic workplaces going unnoticed because women ultimately end up thankful for the experience? It seems we’ve developed this weird backwards appreciation for the environments that damaged us the most, and somehow end up grateful for the harassment, prejudice, and humiliation because somehow, somewhere, we became stronger women because of it. Is this outcome the ultimate form of gaslighting?
I could end this article here and say yes, it is. There is a major issue with the fact that resilience is often learned in toxic and abusive workplaces. Those who can harden themselves and come out the other side thrive, while those who can’t pail in comparison, left with nothing more than a lifetime of dented career confidence and sometimes an expensive therapy bill to boot. The damaging behaviour from those at the helm of toxic businesses creates an environment in which women have to compete against one another for the ultimate prize of resilience, and somewhere along the way we all fall for it.
I asked my Instagram following of 35,000 (mostly women) whether they’d experienced toxicity at work that they believed made them stronger, and within 48 minutes of posting I had over 100 tales of abuse-fuelled resilience sitting in my inbox.
One follower said “I was an EA [executive assistant] to a piece of shit CEO for 5 years (and there were definitely good parts to the job) but it was hard and he was beyond demanding. However, that job made me so resilient and also kinda beat the fear of people out of me. Now I deal with super senior folk, and I’m not scared of any of them. Somehow that job and the battles I had to face really served me. Ultimately, my ex-CEO gave me a gift. It was wrapped in shit, but it was there.”
On the surface, this is a war story gone good. I could describe my own experience in a similar way. Treated like poo but ultimately a better person for it. But why are we forced to learn this resilience in toxic environments?
Why do we end up thankful for abusive communication? Do we need workplace abuse in order to progress?
Another follower said “My previous GM would push and push points until I cried. I spent two years in therapy and I’m now stronger for it and learnt to control myself in situations. It helped to shape how I respond in work situations now.”
Another woman, another abusive experience, another expression of thanks for the hardship that ultimately got her where she is now.
How have we let this become the norm? How are we allowing women to say that they ‘wouldn’t change their experience for the world’? Surely there’s a better way to become resilient, confident women, that doesn’t involve crying at meetings, being pushed to breaking point and getting the occasional grope from Derek in accounts.
I often think back to my toxic work experiences when I’m making a move that younger me would never have done. When I reference those toxic days to my Mum, she’ll say “but look at you now.” For a long time I believed it. I believed this was a badge of honour; one that somehow made me stronger for being able to embrace the hardship and emerge more resilient.
But surely we can grow into strong, resilient women without getting undermined by a Director and gaslit by the HR assistant?
Another follower explained “I used to work for a family business that used emotional manipulation as a way of controlling staff into doing their training. They’d tell us we wouldn’t progress in the industry if we didn’t particulate in the super high paid courses.”
Of course, as with all the others, this story was followed up with a blow-softening sense of gratitude for the trauma. “I definitely learnt a lot though, going from being a relatively quiet person to being someone that doesn’t take shit,” she continued.
Another follower explained “Because of my old boss constantly belittling me, I’ve had so much doubt in my abilities. I developed social anxiety at work and every now and then I’ll choke on my words because I fear people are judging me again.”
Being belittled, triggered social anxiety, crippling self-doubt – and still we’re sugar coating our experiences with tales of how our battle wounds somehow made us ‘better women’. “I’ve also grown so much. I handle criticism like a champ, and learned to always cover my ass by making sure I have some form of written confirmation to avoid any issues, and learning to own my shit.”
For a long time I thought this stuff was just a fact of life. I thought this was how we learned, how we grew, and how we developed. And in some ways, it is. Struggling with self confidence, perhaps experiencing occasional conflicts and sustaining less-than-desirable work experiences can certainly play a part in shaping who we are. But when it comes to the toxicity, why has nobody considered that maybe, just maybe, we could grow into strong, resilient women without the backdrop of being gaslit, emotionally abused and manipulated at work?
We can be pushed without being pushed to breaking point. We can be challenged without a subtle undertone of belittling language. We can deal with conflict that isn’t manufactured as part of an emotional manipulation strategy.
Is there, behind every strong woman, a toxic workplace that made her that way?
Many expressed that they’d experienced the cycle of ‘obsession and outcasting’ that runs through toxic corporate environments. That is, that one employee is at some point considered the best thing since sliced bread, and any successor that attempts to fill that place is treated like absolute garbage. After some time, attention shifts, and the aforementioned piece of garbage gets ‘accepted’ into the pack, as the hatred transfers onto a newbie attempting to fit into the ecosystem. I’ve been there myself, and it’s not pleasant. It’s childlike, catty and incredibly emotionally damaging. Hearing it happened to other women was comforting, but concerning.
“I joined a company where lots of people had been there 20 years + and they hated new people. My colleagues would get at me all the time, talking about how great my predecessor was. It got so bad I was unable to take in new information and was forgetting things. I persevered, though, and by the time I left they were all saying how ‘shit hot’ I was. I don’t doubt they’re treating my successor in exactly the same way as they did me,” explained another follower.
Is it an age thing? Is it a millennial thing? Are some threatened by the potential we pose as young people, or has it always been this way? I suspect, perhaps, a mix of the two. I’m not suggesting this is a new issue, or an issue solely experienced by millennials, though I think the aspect of technology and social licence does make millennials seem more threatening to the status quo.
Maybe we’re just talking about it more, and perhaps millennial youth and perspective is often demonised by the big dogs looking to pick on us by dragging up stereotypes of greed and entitlement. Regardless, I suspect this has been going on for years.
I remember stories my Mum would tell me me. She worked in sales, and was bloody good at it. Of course, in sales you need a certain baseline level of resilience, perhaps more so than other industries. But she learned much of hers through being talked down to by men, being refused promotions because she would work harder in lower positions than anyone else, and unfortunately by being spat at in the street while at work in field sales positions.
Whether we’re talking millennial women in recent years or women who have been in the workplace for decades, the question remains: are toxic employers getting away with it because we’ve become so good at healing ourselves and embracing the trauma to come out stronger? I completely believe that struggles do make us stronger – you grow through what you go through, as they say. But where do we draw the line? How much trauma do we need to face for the simple reward of resilience?
…and how many more women that come after us have to suffer before this toxicity and exploitation is actually talked about?
If, instead of forcing ourselves to self-heal and live through the toxic manipulation, we could berate the players that inflict this workplace toxicity in the first place, maybe things would be different.
If we could just be free to learn resilience, confidence and strength in safe environments without emotionally damaging workplace behaviour, that’d be fab.
If we could be believed when we raise our voices about workplace manipulation rather than having to wait until we’ve weathered the emotional storm to reap the rewards of resilience and sense-of-self, that too, would be fab.
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