February 24, 2023 | By Damali Peterman
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Although the definition of toxic femininity varies depending on the source, it is quite fascinating to track the discourse across various professions and industries. Before diving in, I think it is important to consider the way in which I approach the term “toxic femininity.”
My background is in law, dispute resolution, and education with a focus on conflict prevention, management, and resolution. My perspective is based on having advised thousands of professionals navigating toxic femininity in the workplace and, of course, from my own experience as a woman. I am sure that we all have seen or witnessed toxic femininity at some point or another even if we didn’t know that is what it was called. What does this nebulous and highly subjective term mean?
According to Dr. Ludmilar Mesidor, DO, who is board certified in general, child and adolescent psychiatry, exposure to concepts of binary-gendered social norms or stereotypes begins at a young age. She says that:
“In our patriarchal culture girls are raised to be liked and to people please, to take on familial and system burdens without support or compensation. What some call ‘toxic femininity’ is actually women using the limited tools/methods afforded to them in this patriarchal culture to garner support, attention, rewards, and pleasure.”
To me, toxic femininity is strict adherence to gender-specific expectations for women that are dictated by societal norms and stereotypes. Three things that we know about femininity are:
- What constitutes femininity (and masculinity) is decided by the cultural environment that you are in and is often reinforced in homes, schools, workplaces, and other social settings.
- Femininity varies from society to society and continuously evolves.
- Characteristics including norms, behaviors, and roles associated with being a girl, woman, boy, or man, as well as their relationships with each other, are socially constructed.
WHAT MAKES FEMININITY TOXIC?
When there is a pressure for girls and women to fit into a narrow mold of socially acceptable qualities and attributes of the female gender role, femininity becomes toxic. It increases when a woman tries to conform to these strict individual and societal norms to the detriment of deciding what is best for her as an individual. Toxic femininity can be expressed by men and women and, not surprisingly, can be both internally and externally enforced.
Licensed therapist Alison Trenk, MA LCSW, states:
“We live in systems. I’m concerned about the term getting over generalized, because we always have to start with who is in power. Adapting to a system in power, while it may be toxic because it keeps that system alive, is also a survival mechanism for many. Toxic femininity is ‘toxic’ because the rules of what it is to be female are in a patriarchal gender binary system that oppresses and disempowers ‘feminine’ traits and defines how they can only be expressed.”
HOW IS TOXIC FEMININITY EXPRESSED IN THE WORKPLACE?
In the workplace, femininity becomes toxic when women are forced to fit into a potentially negative mold. Common examples usually fall into the categories of how women are supposed to act (submissive), behave (nurturing), look (e.g., long hair, wear makeup, heels), and be (also nurturing).
It can also show up as overt or subtle enforcement of socially acceptable attributes of the female gender role at work. In other words, whenever you hear phrases such as “that’s not ladylike” or “most women would . . .,” these phrases are often indicators that the person is describing behavior that they consider to be outside of the norm for women.
Toxic femininity can be experienced in a variety of ways according to psychologist Dr. Elisabeth Gordon, including when women feel that they have to or are told they should “downplay their abilities or achievements; modify their tone to not appear too strident, aggressive, or emotional; avoid confrontation; attend to the needs of the males in the group first; be less or more sexy in dress and appearance; have or not have a family or children.”
FIVE WAYS TO ADDRESS IT IN THE WORKPLACE
Let’s take the toxicity out of some approaches to femininity that show up in the workplace.
Change your mindset: Toxic femininity is not a condition or disease—it is a mindset. Consider how you have internalized certain stereotypes as it relates to women in the workplace and challenged your own assumptions. Think about your own beliefs and where they came from.
Challenge the norms: Culturally defined concepts of binary-gendered norms have changed over time and will continue to evolve. Given that gender is a social construct, we should continue to challenge the parts of the definition that do not work for us as individuals.
Focus on inclusivity: Maybe someone is new to their work environment and they are looking for an invitation to be their true selves and not fit into some mold. Create an environment that is truly inclusive.
Create a space for authenticity: One true way to combat toxic femininity is to encourage everyone to be their authentic selves and not the version of themselves they feel compelled to be in their work environment.
Educate yourself and others: Know what toxic femininity is and what it is not. It is not just the opposite of toxic masculinity, nor is it sexism, toxic behavior, or toxic people. Culturally defined concepts shape toxic femininity. In a vacuum, there is nothing inherently wrong with possessing the traits often associated with toxic femininity, such as being selfless, polite, emotional, and nurturing. The “toxicity” arises when you feel that you have to strictly adhere to such norms and you suppress your own needs to adhere to those stereotypical feminine traits.
Awareness of what it is and how it shows up up at work is the starting point. Toxic femininity describes behavior, stereotypes, and cultural norms that narrowly define gender roles for women. Note the definition and associated behaviors can vary depending on, among other things, where you live and the culture or industry of your workplace.
Studies show that exposure to such norms and the creation of these stereotypes start at a young age. If you find yourself expressing thoughts or actions that can be associated with toxic femininity, it is important that you pause for a moment and reflect on where this thought or action came from and ask yourself a few questions:
- Is the stereotype helpful or harmful to you?
- Does it add unnecessary pressure to your already demanding workload?
- Is it contradictory to you?
- Are you able to show up as your authentic self or are you trying to fit a mold?
- Are you limiting others to certain societal norms for women in the workplace?
When we take into consideration what makes femininity toxic, we can focus on changing behaviors both within ourselves and highlighting it for others when subconsciously or consciously women (and girls) are encouraged to fit stereotypes of how they should be, behave, or show up not only in the workplace, but also in other aspects of their lives.
Similar to most things where lasting change is the desired outcome, addressing toxic femininity will take time, patience, and consistency. These tips will help you to begin this journey.
Damali Peterman, Esq., is the founder, CEO, and Chief Conflict Resolver of Breakthrough ADR LLC.