Women Leaders: Navigating Toxic Work Environments

Women leaders face a unique set of challenges in the workplace. Sadly, one of the most significant obstacles is navigating toxic work environments.

These environments can be harmful to anyone; however, women often face additional barriers due to gender bias and discrimination.

The other day, I was in a coaching room with a group of c-suite women discussing the topic of burnout. One woman said that burnout and toxic work environments go hand-in-hand for her. Just five months earlier, we saw her get fired from her c-suite job. The immediacy of her job loss came as a shock to her and the others in the room; sadly, it was no shock to me as I’ve seen this all too often in my work.

She shared that while a toxic work environment can take many forms, from bullying and harassment to discrimination and microaggressions, for her, the toxicity was the piling on of the crushing workload. Her boss dangled the work in front of her as the carrot for any benefit that she desired. To keep up with the workload, she stopped exercising, shortened her sleep window and woke up in the middle of the night with anxiety about how she would get everything done. Her anxiety was “through the roof” and then she was expected to make wise decisions on no sleep. She no longer could regulate her emotions and would “pop off” at anyone around her. She started to tear up at the thought of the burned-out leader she had become.

Unfortunately, even women c-suite leaders are not immune to these types of behaviors. In fact, we may be more likely to experience them because we are breaking through traditional gender roles and expectations. Some male, and even female, colleagues may feel threatened by our success and attempt to undermine us as a result.

This type of behavior can have serious consequences for women leaders’ mental health and job performance. It’s difficult to focus on work when we’re constantly worried about being belittled or undermined by our colleagues. Additionally, being exposed to negative attitudes and behaviors can lead us to burnout and other health problems over time.

So what can you do if you find yourselves in a toxic work environment? The first step is recognizing that it’s not your fault – you are not responsible for the actions of others no matter what anyone says. You should also seek support from trusted colleagues or mentors who can offer advice and guidance.

It may also be helpful for women leaders to speak up about their experiences in a constructive way. This could mean having an honest conversation with their HR representative about the issues they’ve been facing. It could also mean advocating for changes within the organization that promote a more inclusive and respectful workplace culture. My client said these were not options for her as the HR executive was a close friend of her boss and advocacy would have fallen on deaf ears. She said, “they saw me change and become a shell of myself and not once did anyone ask me if I was okay.”

Ultimately, it’s important for organizations to recognize the impact of toxic work environments on all employees – especially those who are breaking barriers as female leaders. By creating a culture that values respect, inclusion, and collaboration, companies can empower women leaders to thrive in their roles without fear of discrimination or harassment.

As for my client, she said that she would listen to the whispers of toxicity when they started and would exit immediately, instead of believing she was somehow heroic for hanging on until they pushed her out.

Work with me

Navigating toxic work environments is a challenge that many women leaders face. While I cannot offer to be your counselor and encourage you to seek help from a mental health professional, if you’re healing and ready to move forward in a healthy way, I would love to help you. Click here and schedule a time to talk.

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