Three women walking down a hallway in 70's high fashion

Let me start this off by saying that I unequivocally believe that men and women are equal. I believe and stand by the Merriam-Webster definition of feminism, which is the “the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.”

I stand in awe of the female pioneers who have come before me like Madame C.J. Walker, Josephine Baker, Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie and Frida Kahlo. I am daily encouraged by present-day heroines like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Malala Yousafzai. I am a champion for and encourage women who are pressing the boundaries in any field.

What I disagree with is the black-and-white, cookie-cutter solution to healthy workplace culture. If you’re looking for an unbiased and productive culture run on tenants of equality, then simply putting women in leadership is not the answer. I say this from experience.

I once worked at a nonprofit job run by women and supposedly for women. It was an organization that served young girls, many of color, through creative arts. Yet, every day when I walked in the office, I remember the feeling of holding my breath upon entry. There was a constant feeling of walking on eggshells, not knowing the next time I might be lashed out at or scolded for anything, whether it was of my doing or not.

Every day when I walked in the office, I remember the feeling of holding my breath upon entry.

My boss often used mistakes as opportunities for public humiliation, rather than for teachable moments. Subtle remarks dripping with racial stereotypes and bias were casually thrown around. Power moves were played like a game of chess to put you in your place if you ever felt the need to advocate for yourself or something you believed in. I eventually (and rather quickly) did leave this job, and later, I would find out that my reasons for quitting were the same as many of this nonprofit’s former employees.

The hardest part of this was not that I had a bad boss (or several in this case) but knowing that the leadership was a group of women. It was disheartening to work for women who didn’t genuinely advocate and care for other women and girls. In many ways, the women I worked for reminded me of the image of toxic male leadership that we often hear about in the news. The only difference was these leaders came in heels and skirts.

Unfortunately, my experience is not isolated. I know several of my peers, some in the nonprofit space and others in the business world, who have worked for a toxic boss. Oftentimes, it was a woman. I’ve heard stories of female leaders who tear down their teams, who never apologize for their own mistakes, who lash out at others or who make power moves at the expense of their team.

None of these things are okay—whether you are a male or female. Toxicity in leadership is not exclusive to men. In today’s culture and conversation about feminism and workplace equality, we often forget this. Yes, lets shatter the barriers that block women from entering into leadership roles in any industry, that barricade them from equal pay for the same work or hinder them from an education. Yet, lets not be brash or naive to think that a one-size-fits all mentality of placing women in leadership will cure the world of its problems.

Toxicity in leadership is not exclusive to men.

We talk about the glass ceiling needing to be shattered and how placing more women in leadership will diversify the conversation. In reality, the best way to shatter any bias is to put healthy people in positions of leadership. No leader, no human being, can ever be perfect; however, it is possible to have leaders who are healthy people.

These are leaders who do not ask of their subordinates anything they don’t ask of themselves. These are leaders who are quick to apologize if they make a mistake. These are leaders who hold themselves and their teams accountable. These are leaders who create spaces where their employees feel comfortable to ask questions and to make mistakes.

These are leaders who value your time in the office and off the clock. These are leaders who invest in their teams, asking simple questions like, “How are you?” or bringing Thank You cards for the end-of-the-year holiday season. These are leaders who see their team members as human beings and treat them as so.

Post college, I remember applying to dozens of magazine jobs, only to be met with silence or rejection. I would email editors, many of whom were women, and ask for feedback as to how I could improve. Oftentimes, I was met with more silence or generated emails that you could tell a robot wrote.

A friend of mine named Lucy, who is now also a magazine editor, and I used to joke about how once we make it in the editorial world, we would never forget what it felt like to be young and new to the industry. We vowed that we would always be people who stopped to turn around and help someone else up the ladder. I now, more than ever, want to be a woman and a leader who helps others up the ladder.

This is the most important aspect of healthy workplace culture—leaders who take the time to help someone who is a few paces behind them. Whether I work for a man or a woman, I want a boss who is healthy, someone who champions me, challenges me and believes in me. I want to work for a company and team that is fun and light-hearted, a place that is a joy to come into each day. I want to work for a leader who knows my value and worth because I sure do.

Whether I work for a man or a woman, I want a boss who is healthy, someone who champions me, challenges me and believes in me.

Women in leadership are amazing trailblazers, and many of them have worked their butts off to get where they are. I don’t want to take from that, but instead, I want to call all leaders higher. Leaders are truly servants in most respects because the work involved means going ahead of your team and setting the stage for success. If your heart is not for people, then why lead?

What is your opinion about toxic workplace culture? How do you think it can best be amended?

Image via Aki Akiwumi, Darling Issue No. 20

3 comments

  1. Yes!! I found myself nodding as I read this. Empowerment AND accountability. Happy you made a space for this in the conversation. Intersectional feminism also came to mind as I read. By taking a genuine look at your own experience and those of others (and speaking with truth!) you’re acknowledging the vast diversity of women in our perspectives, style, habits, and personalities. THAT is true feminism. Brava!

  2. Thank you for your honesty. Sometimes I feel that as women we support women no matter what. I am a boss that is human and hope that my employees (really I refer to them as coworkers) would vouch that I am quick to own my mistakes and apologize when I am wrong. I do have bad days where my filter is out or I am upset about a totally unrelated to work thing – but might bring that to the office. I think the best think I can share is that I’ve gradually learned that as the boss, I don’t have to know everything or act like I do. I am a constant learner which is pushing me to listen with intent to understand.

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