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5 signs you’re in a toxic workplace for women

5 signs you're in a toxic workplace for women

Are you feeling underwhelmed by the environment in your current workplace? Do you think twice about speaking up because of how other colleagues may react? Are certain norms making it difficult for women to thrive in your workplace?

If this sounds familiar, you could be in a toxic workplace for women.

Our professional performance and productivity are directly impacted by our work environment. Our overall wellbeing and mental health are also influenced by our workplace culture – a fact that must not be understated. Consequently, women must be cognizant of what constitutes a toxic workplace to formulate a strategy.

In this post, I will explore five signs that a workplace isn’t working for women. Recognising these signs early can help protect you (and other women) from being adversely affected by them. I’ll also share five strategies to help women navigate a workplace that isn’t working for them.

The 5 signs of a toxic workplace (and why they matter)

1. The double bind

Women are often held to different standards than their male counterparts regarding performance and expectations. This is called the double bind, which sadly still exists in many workplace environments.

It refers to the different standards and expectations placed on women employees compared to their male counterparts. An example of a double bind is when a woman expresses her opinion or takes a stance on an issue and is seen as aggressive. In contrast, her male colleague, taking the same stance, is seen as assertive.

Here’s an example: A proposal for a new customer strategy is discussed in a management meeting which Jenny doesn’t agree with. She voices her disagreement and why, and as a result, is labelled as being too opinionated and aggressive. A few minutes later, a male employee, Tommy, speaks up about his disagreement with the strategy and is seen as assertive and strategic.

2. Sexual harassment

A toxic workplace for women can be characterised by sexual harassment, which is defined as “an unwelcome sexual advance, unwelcome request for sexual favours or other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated, where a reasonable person would anticipate that reaction in the circumstances”.

Sexual harassment can cause harm to the person it is directed at, as well as anyone who witnesses the behaviour.

Sexual harassment can cause:

  • Feelings of social isolation or family dislocation
  • Physical injuries as a result of an assault
  • Stress, depression, anxiety and post‐traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Loss of confidence and withdrawal
  • Negative impacts on a person’s job or career
  • Illness as a result of stress
  • Suicidal thoughts.

3. Unmanaged gender dynamics

Gender dynamics occur when mindsets and biases about the role of women in society and at work are left unchecked and unmanaged.

Gender dynamics can occur in various ways, including when women are left out of important decisions, excluded from conversations that shape the company’s strategy, and blocked from participating in skills development activities.

When women are excluded from critical skill-building activities and exposure to networks, it can decrease their confidence levels. This is because they are not being given the opportunity to develop and demonstrate their leadership skills through experiential learning at the same pace as their male peers.

4. Lack of support

Women tell me their ideas are dismissed or overlooked by management. This lack of support creates an environment that stifles the creativity and development of women within the workplace and, of course, the progress of the business!

When women are blocked from voicing their ideas, they are essentially blocked from using their experience, knowledge, and creativity to contribute to the organisation’s overall success.

Not only does this mean that many potential solutions for the business go unheard, but women also lose the ability to demonstrate their skills and potential to decision-makers.

5. Men behaving badly

Men behave badly towards women in the workplace in various ways. These include talking over them in meetings, ignoring their ideas and opinions, shutting down their ideas and contributions, belittling them or taking credit for their work.

Mansplaining is a form of gender discrimination that disproportionately affects women. It occurs when a man explains something to a woman in an overly simplified or condescending manner, with the assumption that the woman is not knowledgeable on the subject, even when the evidence is otherwise.

Men interrupting women, which is often referred to as ‘manterrupting’ occurs when a man interrupts a woman speaking, either to take control of the conversation or simply to show off his own knowledge.

A workplace is toxic when some or all of these behaviours continue unchecked and unmanaged.

5 actions women can take if they’re in a toxic workplace

So, the first step is knowing that you are not imagining this. But then, what do you do about it?

1. Educate yourself about your workplace rights

Women need to be knowledgeable about laws in their country protecting them from gender-based workplace discrimination. Knowing your rights can help you respond confidently when faced with bad behaviour in the workplace.

2. Document any bad behaviour

If you experience or observe sexist behaviour, gender discrimination, or disrespectful behaviour, it’s important to document it accurately and thoroughly.

This includes writing a detailed account that includes the date, specific details of what happened, names of any witnesses and other relevant information. Having these records can be helpful if you decide to take further action.

3. Join or form a support network

Women’s workplace employee resource groups (ERGs) or networks can be a terrific source of support. Your women colleagues may have faced similar challenges and can validate what you are experiencing and provide support.

ERGs are an invaluable source of information and can help you stay informed and keep workplace leaders informed about the lived experience of women in the workplace.

4. Take a stand

If it’s safe and you have support, take a stand when confronted with disrespectful behaviour or gender discrimination and sexism.

This does not mean arguing with the colleague who has made inappropriate comments; rather, practising techniques to help them realise their actions’ harmfulness.

For example, you can show you don’t think what’s been said is okay without saying anything. Rolling your eyes or not laughing along is a good start. That awkward silence and ‘the things you don’t say’ can go a long way towards making disrespect less popular.

Our Watch has helpful resources to ensure your voice is heard and bad behaviour is called out.

5. Take care of yourself

Feeling overwhelmed, sad and despondent in a toxic workplace is commonplace. Taking the time to take care of yourself is vital.

Ensure you’re getting enough rest, eating well, and engaging in activities you enjoy will help your mental health. It’s also important to stay connected with friends and family outside of work who can provide emotional support.

When all is said and done, the number one priority for women should be themselves. If your workplace is toxic and not changing, get out because no job is worth your health and wellbeing.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on April 12, 2023 but has since been updated to include new content.

Michelle Redfern

This article was written by Michelle Redfern, a globally recognised gender equality, diversity and inclusion consultant. She advises organisations in the business and sporting sectors on DEI strategy development and implementation and works directly with women leaders to advance their careers.

Michelle has been recognised as one of Australia’s Top 100 Women of Influence and has won awards for her contribution to women’s advancement. She is passionate about what sets her soul on fire, closing the global leadership gender gap and enabling women to have a career that soars!

Connect with Michelle on LinkedIn.