I had a boss recently who I thought was the best boss ever. We had a lot in common. She said so right away. She built me the job I wanted, said I was smart and a system level thinker, and she loved my fashion sense, said maybe someday I could have her job. That she would mentor me. I was thrilled.
But it didn’t go that way. Instead once the honeymoon period was over, I dealt with months of poor boundaries and unrealistic expectations, enough stress that it sent me back into therapy for PTSD symptoms, and also caused a flare up of a skin problem that led to a scary autoimmune diagnosis (now thankfully in remission due to better stress management). She knew about both diagnoses and was still relentless. She said she had her own diagnoses (likely also stress induced) that she was powering through.
My last straw was when I was working late with her almost every day and the scope and prioritiziarion of projects she had me on kept changing constantly, with poor communication about them, and then she threatened to write me up one morning for coming in 15 minutes late a little too often, not caring what the Boston trains were like because her commute was further.
I finally stood up for myself, told her I didn’t sign up for this. She gave me a scarf and a plant and was super nice for a while, so I thought it was a quiet form of apology, but turns out ousting me was already in the works, and I guess it was supposed to hurt on the way down. I turned in data for a big project the day I got fired for ostensibly not doing my work. Which wasn’t entirely untrue, because I couldn’t possibly keep up with everything. I had the work of two and a half people on my shoulders and had told her in our one on one’s what I was able to accomplish and not accomplish. But she had always pushed back and said the admin work I’d been assigned as part of my hybrid position, which used to be full time for a secretary, should only take me an hour a day.
Since I stopped working there my health has gotten better, but I’ve found myself a bit more jaded about my field. I’ve seen too much of this in the nonprofit/human services/advocacy field and I really am not interested in dealing with more. If these are the people we are leaving our at-risk populations in the hands of, I don’t think they will be able to get rid of the stigma of the word “charity” anytime soon. First, heal thyself.
I’ve been considering a career switch, but I’m not sure to what just yet. I genuinely do care about working on the problems facing at-risk populations, feel I have a lot of experience and knowledge to offer, just find it really hard on its own, and definitely can’t handle a toxic environment to do it in. My health is also not a negotiable going forward and neither is sacrificing my home life. )You don’t get a husband this sexy and not want to be home in time to eat dinner with him!) I also don’t bounce back as quickly from overexertion as I did in the past and I’m not wanting to try to test my limits. This body and mind need to be able to carry me into old age without failing. Not sure where that leaves me but if someone wants to overwork or exploit me it is gonna be a hard pass on that front. Turns out that leaves a lot of jobs women usually take off the table.
But while I’m considering my own next career steps, I’ve given a bit more thought to the problem of women in the workplace (or volunteer space) who aren’t your friend and what they can look like. It starts off very hard to pick out, at least for me. Women who are competing or trying to subdue or take from other women don’t usually state their intentions outright like how men often do to each other. They instead play the frenemy game, act like a friend and collaborator.
If a movie script ever has a woman telling another woman “I will crush you” while grimacing, that script was probably written by a man. Women are highly trained to avoid displays of anger and aggression, regardless of how much they feel (often because it is repressed, it is a lot), and told that relationship management is their primary duty in life. This means women who are trying to take something from you will probably act like your enthusiastic new best friend in order to do it. This often includes showering you with the compliments all women are thirsty to hear – that they love your haircut, your ideas, your energy, your way of phrasing that one thing you said so well. They’ll likely use your words in meetings with other people and smile at you during or after, like it’s an inside joke, like their eyes are asking “so, how’d I do?” And when they see that you are now supporting them, that you’ve become their cheerleader, they’ll know their false teaming has worked. That the hooks are in. You now think you are a team, close friends and collaborators. They think they’re now going to squeeze what they need out of you and you won’t say no.
Thing is, what they want to get out of you is rarely good for you and it is hard to say no. May even feel impossible. But you don’t know that at first. At first you feel so productive and valued, like they are pushing you to really succeed and they really believe in you. It all seems great.
But then maybe you are having an off day, an ebb in the ebb and flow of your life, and the way they interact with you leaves you a little shaken, feeling like you let them down, disappointed them. So you try harder. But something feels off. They don’t seem to recognize that you can’t perform on all cylinders all the time like that. You tell them that and they don’t get it. Telling you they are trying to and managing, and reminding you how important this work is, that it’s everything you’ve both worked for, and it’s probably life and death for others out there. So you scramble and try more, because you do care, and you want to be loved and respected by her like it seems you were before.
And then the burnout comes. Because you were right that the pace was unsustainable and self-care was absent. No matter how much you want to keep going you develop a case of the “fuck-its.” You can’t make yourself care. Your attitude is negative. You find yourself staring at your computer screen for an hour or half a day with little to show for it, watching the clock. You find yourself waking up at 4am with anxiety on Mondays. Then most other days of the week. And then it becomes normal, standard, a problem of you, just how you are.
When she yells at you about missed deadlines you feel you deserve it. When she says you’re not measuring up, you dejectedly agree. When she says it feels like it is all on her shoulders and you weren’t and aren’t there, have disappointed her, you may cry or say sorry or defend yourself a little while secretly feeling angry at yourself and inferior.
It will probably only get worse after this. She will likely find fault with everything you are doing. Micromanage you. Spy on you. Send other people to spy on you. She will now embody the strengths that you once had, run forward with an iteration of the ideas you shared with her. They are now hers and you are a deflated and mostly useless balloon. Even your best work was a fluke and she has laid claim to improving upon it, heck she did half the work because you were not up to finishing the job and she is just as smart, but a harder worker. And also, probably smarter. And really she was being generous. She did all the work. You were and are nothing. A hindrance at best.
She will give you a more demeaning role now because you cannot be trusted with a role she thought you could have. Maybe you are scheduling meetings or picking up cookies instead of handling meetings. You will be given these tasks with a smile, like how well you do them is a test of whether or not you can come back into the inner circle.
But eventually push will come to shove. And you will either tell her to take a hike, or more likely she will tell you to take one. It will be a story of how you betrayed her. And she will pretend like she is both magnanimous and aggrieved, or confused as to how to do this heartbreaking thing she has to do. You will be halfway inclined to believe her but also very angry. You are treated worse than you deserve and you know it. But something in your mind has you feeling like you don’t exactly deserve good treatment. So you don’t advocate for yourself. You slink away.
You find a friend who is nonjudgmental and you go cry on their shoulder. Or one who is judgmental (this is worse). You tell them what happened. You either listen to them tell you what you could have done differently (mostly nit-picky stuff that you eat up with horror) or they call her a bitch and a mean girl and tell you how smart and lovely you are, but you don’t really believe it. You aren’t in that headspace. After all, it’s only a matter of time before they too realize you aren’t good enough, like how ust happened, right? You wonder if you should trust your friend, if you should trust anyone. The one you trust least in all this is yourself. You feel like a snail in a shell, wanting to withdraw, believing you have left a noticeable trail of slime everywhere you go because you were told you did, came to believe it.
You get a call from a former coworker who says they’d like to grab a beer. They tell you they miss you and your work was great and they’re sorry they didn’t tell you this, but this same thing had happened to your predecessor. The woman nobody around you ever spoke of and you were told and believed had been fired for not doing the work.
You connect this back to other experiences you’ve had like this and realize that all of them have been awful, their own form of abusive relationship, and that there are two kinds of women – women who support and bolster other women, and women who use female support networks to step on their backs to get to a better spot in the current system.
You realize that martyrdom is a form of narcissim and overwork is a form of addiction. You see that you ignored your gut feeling because you were a little too dependent on praise from someone you had admired before you got up close and you already were struggling with imposter syndrome and being doubted, because all high-achieving women are.
You watch the same thing happen to other women and know they they stay quiet too, blame themselves, suffer low self esteem for no other reason than that they had befriended a secretly huge jerk as a work wife. You watch women who screw over other women get ahead, seemingly rewarded for being one of the guys in at least one way.
You want to speak out so other women don’t have to deal with the same thing. You realize you have a few key takeaways from three experiences with toxic female bosses/colleagues and three with excellent ones:
1) Be cautious about bringing your whole self to a new relationship. If she wants to know about your personal life or your professional dreams, demure until you have known her at least six months. Keep it friendly but purely professional.
2.) Check and see who else she has worked with, where they are now. Strong women bring other women up with them. Empower them. See who her mentors are. A list of discarded or unmentioned friends or mentors or collaborators is a huge red flag. You too could be one of them someday.
3.) See if she at all resembles the term “work/life balance.” If she is skipping meals and running around frantic with papers and double booking herself and complaining that others haven’t done their part and she is the only one to fix it more often than not, smile and wave and then slowly back away from this person.
4.) See how she speaks about other women in your presence. Does she insult or compliment too much or concern troll, or do a combination of the above? Does she fish for information from you that they might not want her to have? Does she say she is the only one you can trust? All of these are huge red flags, a person who is triangulating.
5.) Does she show subtle signs of jealousy? Tell you you have a great figure for the dress you are wearing and then reminisce about when she was a size smaller than you? Hear about your new boyfriend or good date and say she is happy you are “finally” finding a good relationship? Give any sort of backhanded compliment or removal of role such as “that’s great but [X person or team lower on the totem poll] should have really handled that” or “nice work, but I already went ahead and did it myself”?. If so, don’t let her know what you care about. She will try to take it and rub your face in it, like in her jealousy she feels you have taken from her and done so.
6.) Does she treat men and women very differently? Pampering and simpering around men a lot more? Or making excuses for guys that should not have excuses made for them? Quite likely she will expect the same “boys will he boys” attitude out of you, and if you don’t have it, throw you under the bus.
7.) Have other women dropped subtle hints that she’s mean or difficult to work with once you’ve gotten to know them a little? I’m not talking overt “that one’s a bitch, that one’s nice” categorization stuff, which often is more about roles or overt competition or jokes. I’m talking saying “so and so is really great, just be careful not to get on her bad side, as I’ve seen what happens to people who do,” or “the work is really intense, I think her needs are really specialized, that she needs a special kind of person to work with her.” You don’t want to get suckered into trying to be this special kind of person or tiptoe around people’s bad sides. This is a warning!
8.) Does she change up her boundaries on you all the time? Do stuff like tell you about that time she struggled with infertility/a cheating spouse/a mean parent, and other times tell you not to turn work into personal chit chat? Ask you about your significant other or family history and then act like she knows nothing about you and you are a cog in the wheel? That is an indicator that she has very poor boundaries and the kind of relationship that is usually being built over the sharing of personal details is not what is happening here.
9.) At a new job it is best to bring only a few personal items and nothing you care about too much. Even if they really encourage you to “make yourself feel at home.” Work is not home so bring enough to feel like your space is personalized but be a minimalist and make sure it can also fit in one box if you need to carry it out on short notice yourself. If there are projects or documents you want to have access to for your portfolio after you leave this job, schedule yourself to take copies of them home monthly (assuming that they aren’t proprietary and you are allowed to). This is because women who are toxic to other women will usually take it out on her stuff. I learned this from my own mean girl experiences (my poor potted plants…) and also from that of another colleague – a woman who collected ceramic cows and was told that they’d be boxed up for her. She got a few back chipped, accidentally of course.
10.) Do not assume HR or any long term employees will be on your side if this person has been there longer than you or is better connected or has more seniority. They are on the side of the organization or company and want to remain there and “keep the peace.” That means they are tacitly agreeing to the organizational culture of the place, and most likely the mean girl behavior is part of the organizational culture. Keep your own detailed records if you are being harassed (in a notebook or file that belongs to you and not the company) and only go to HR if you know you can stand losing the job if/when it backfires. And always, always have a fuck off fund whenever you can. Usually if it gets this toxic you’re gonna need to walk.
11.) If you decide to build a business or an organization, don’t co-found it. Own that thing your own self! And have whoever you bring in to work on it know you own it, that it is yours and there is paperwork to match. Because otherwise some can get ideas about how they’re better at this stuff than you. And they’re not. Don’t let them get in your head or anyone else’s with that nonsense. You need to hold tight to your reins if you want to accomplish your mission. One of my biggest regrets with an advocacy org I built in the past is that I was too focused on collaboration and didn’t take this risk into account until it had happened.
12.) Know that even with this, trust is possible and good working relationships are like any good relationships – worth the trouble it takes to find them. The kissing frogs before you find your prince analogy works, except, since you will probably have many bosses and colleagues in your life, it’s more like eating eggs. One rotten egg can make you hate egg for a while but a good egg is such a good thing. There are other good eggs out there. You’ve had them before. You will have them again. Nobody can tell you when you’re ready though. It is a personal decision, and if you don’t like eggs anymore or you’d rather eat something else other than egg the rest of your life, that’s your prerogative.
13.) Be the change you’d like to seek. Build women up. Practice the buddy system with women who have proven themselves worthy of being your buddy. Be collaborative and see who can handle it. Interrupt her interrupters (half of being a working woman is fending off interrupters) and say you want to hear what she has to say. There is a reason sexist companies act like one woman on the team meets quota, and why others not so secretly like it way too much when women catfight and each try to be the only one. It’s because one woman pitted against other women can be more easily overpowered and pushed or triangulated into what he wants, but two or more women who have each other’s back is a powerful thing to reckon with. There are a ton of examples of women who have supported other women and built some of the most amazing things in this world, and I know some of these women. They make my heart smile. And just because those stories aren’t told as much as they should be does not negate that power or that difference or what it means to be that person. Be a woman who stands with other women rather than for other women. It is a special thing. Know in your heart that divided we fall, but together we can accomplish anything.