Why Women Are Afraid of Calling Out Toxic Women Bosses


Why Women Are Afraid of Calling Out Toxic Women Bosses

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Toxic. Oxford Dictionary has deemed it 2018’s word of the year due to “the sheer scope of its application” that made it a “standout choice”.

I feel for the word, and for the good folks at Oxford. Most of the time, toxic is followed by masculinity, before conversations veer toward all the ways men knowingly and unknowingly screw women over. Which is why I use the word judiciously, especially since it is the only word my brain conjures up every time I think of a certain boss I had the misfortune of working with.

To make things infinitely worse, she was a woman. Why is that so much worse, you ask? Because I didn’t want to be the woman who called another woman a toxic boss – not even garden-variety toxic, but toxic to a level that I often found myself wondering if poison, not blood, coursed through her veins.

I’d always thought, women don’t rip into other women in power. We had men for that. To snigger and make snide comments about how a woman’s success was directly proportional to the number of men she had slept with while “stealing” a man’s promotion – based on “merit” of course – from under his nose. And that it didn’t matter if her list of accomplishments was short, as long as her hemline was shorter.

Over time, I’d cultivated a wordlessly withering look for people who thought anything other than professional competence was relevant to the conversation. I’ve watched friends struggle to get their big breaks because it is so unfathomable to men to hire women in leadership positions, and even more unpalatable to answer to a female boss. God forbid if said woman is younger than the people she’s supposed to lead. I’ve also known women who were sent official memos reprimanding them – severely – for behaviour that wouldn’t even have registered on anyone’s radar for more than a few minutes, had the offender been a man.  

I’d always thought, women don’t rip into other women in power. We had men for that.

So believe me when I say this: I really, really, really tried to explain away her awfulness as a case of crossed wires between me and her.

G had perfected the exquisite art of mentally abusing the people who worked for her without ever raising her voice, or even speaking very much at all. It was all done through a relentless stream of passive aggressive emails and text messages to pinpoint even the tiniest of mistakes or oversights, while studiously ignoring every victory, or a job done well.

A week into the job, I understood why the team I’d been handed was so antagonistic in their reception of me – their template for a boss was an emotionally abusive one who delighted in making their time in office as miserable as possible. When number one was a study in human degradation, why would number two be any different?

Within 10 days, I came to the disturbing realisation that my team of five literally went through entire days sitting next to each other like robots, not once uttering a word. When they spoke, the conversation was brittle and suspicious. No one ever asked for help, because each one fully expected to have their ideas stolen. There was no spirit of collaboration, and the warmth of camaraderie was a pipe dream.

By the time the first month drew to a close, the ping of the phone signalling an incoming office email led to anxiety. It was never explicitly spelt out, but waiting for office hours to respond to even non-urgent queries was met with cold disapproval.

We were all slaves to G’s moods and whims. The good days, no matter how rare, kept us hoping and praying at the start of each day – although most would begin with a laundry list of all the things we’d done wrong, marked to as many people as she could think of, for some strange reason. I’d later learn that it was part of her MO to ensure her team never became confident enough to function independently – it ensured that G would never become redundant. 

I thought the vitriol would ease up if I took on more work. I started working early mornings, late nights, and even weekends. There were days when I had so much work, I didn’t have time to eat, or even pee. Spending 10-12 hours straight at the desk without getting up to even stretch once was enough to give me neck and back spasms, and a bladder infection from holding in all that pee, but it wasn’t enough to soften the dour, disappointed expression permanently glued to G’s face.

I used to pride myself as a talented, hard-working professional, but G had the uncanny ability to strip her team of its dignity by making each person feel like an incompetent loser. By the end of two months, my anxiety had grown to full-blown panic attacks – I was waking up in the middle of the night, every night, in a cold sweat, my heart racing.

I knew then, that I had to get out before all of this spiralled into a nervous breakdown. Yet, I could only speak of her with a tinge of guilt – and for long, attempted to excuse her behaviour away. Because for some strange reason, I felt I was doing my feminism a disservice by calling her behaviour out.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. In a 2017 long-form article titled “Why Do Women Bully Each Other at Work?” published by The Atlantic, the reporter Olga Khazan described the guilt and antagonism she faced from women respondents while reporting the story. She cites exhaustive studies, including one with 60,000 respondents, where women, “even those who were managers themselves – were more likely to want a male boss than a female one”. Khazan writes: “Some people find these studies literally incredible… And indeed, it is hard to believe that women would hold a fierce bias against members of their own gender. Perhaps in part because it’s such a thorny topic, this phenomenon tends to be either dismissed (nothing to see here) or written off as inevitable (women are inherently catty). But in fact, psychologists have been attempting to explain it for decades – and the sum of their findings suggests that women aren’t the villains of this story.”

G certainly is the villain of my story, and those of others. Tales of her unabashedly trampling over anyone who came in her way, or was perceived as a threat, thrived. She had no friends, but had a couple of allies who operated in exactly the same way, viciously clinging to power by squashing all fight out of those around them.

I often think about my last day in that office. I tied up every loose end so there would be no reason for anyone to get in touch with me, packed up my stuff, and left. No one said a word. No goodbye emails or good luck hugs were exchanged.

I remember laughing when I read the customary question asking for the reason for my departure in my exit interview paperwork. What was I going to tell them? That the woman they’d hired and even recently promoted, was in the habit of mentally harassing her subordinates? They knew, had known for a long time, but had chosen to look the other way – just the way serial sexual harassers continue to find better jobs.

For many weeks after quitting, I’d go over our emails and messages to make sense of my hellish few months, and often found myself stunned by G’s ingenuity. Like all mental abuse, read in isolation, each exchange seemed like the sharp words of an ill-tempered, irascible boss. To the casual observer, she could be faulted for being cold and disapproving. But only the person whose mind is being toyed with can understand the sinister sub-text lurking under what is being said, and what is meant to be understood.

It wasn’t a gender thing — rotten people are rotten no matter what — but her gender definitely protected her; she knew it, and had milked it to her advantage for years. In progressive industries like mine, few women want to admit that another woman is unfit for the job. How was I going to admit, even to myself, that my powerful female boss was a monster, while at the same time complaining about the lack of women in leadership positions? The irony of my feminism keeping me in an unhealthy, abusive work relationship was cruel, and the realisation uncomfortable.

While most large companies will at least pay lip service to the idea of a complaints mechanism to report sexual abuse, there is absolutely no recourse in place for situations when your boss chooses abuse of the mental kind to break you down, even if you’re lucky enough to recognise it for what it is. You can demand redressal for the scars left due to sexual assault, but who do you hold accountable for the deep scars that mental abuse leaves behind?