Toxic Femininity Exists: What Is It and What You Need to Know

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We’ve all heard the phrase “toxic masculinity” thrown around. Think aggressive, dominant behaviour, objectifying, catcalling, mansplaining, hell – even man-spreading. We really have gone into depth… But what about the reverse side: toxic femininity – is it a thing?

Although there’s still a way to go, more women than ever are bagging those high-level degrees, jobs, and positions of power. But instead of sharing a sisterly bond of pride and celebration as our foremothers may have hoped, we often look at our high achieving ladies with a paranoid and jealousy-steeped side-eye.

Just as in the past (and indeed to some extent, still today) women competed for male attention with the goal of “marrying well,” they now seem to do the same – but for the attention of a boss, a professor, or a client. The motivation may have moved forward but the method has not. This intrinsic envy for other females and the immediate comparison many of us do subconsciously – Is she more attractive? More qualified? More charming? – creates a toxic work or academic environment for all involved.

What is Toxic Femininity?

Toxic femininity is essentially where a woman’s response to a long-standing threat of failure, underappreciation or a need to prove herself over her male peers reacts by resenting the women around her who are fighting the same battles.

You know that girl you knew at school (everyone knew at least one) who gossiped, laughed at others behind their back, seemed overly concerned with popularity, and even engaged in a little back-stabbing to put others back in their place? Well, that “mean girl” trope unfortunately doesn’t end at school, but continues into uni and even into the workplace.

Though it may not be the same perpetrator each time, you can guarantee that wherever you find yourself, you will find them – or rather they will find you. But why are these toxic females so commonplace – are we bad feminists for calling this phenomenon out?

I would actually argue the opposite. Feminism is about equality of all – and women putting other women down goes against its very core. Indeed, putting anyone down – no matter what their gender may be – does not coincide with the values of equality. But when women in competitive environments turn against each other rather than being mutually proud and respectful that against all the odds, they both made it – it really is rather sad.

Toxic Women at Work

Women are 14% to 21% more likely than men to report experiencing “uncivil” treatment from female co-workers. There is admittedly a lot of discussion now around making workplaces better for women, but an inconvenient truth is that it’s not just toxic masculinity we should be stamping out: women can be aggressors too, particularly against their fellow females.

We often hesitate to speak openly about toxic femininity, so as not to reinforce the negative stereotypes about women being petty or “bitchy”. But with over 70% of women now admitting to feeling bullied by their female colleagues, it’s about time we talk about the issue.

Essentially, women prefer to attack other women at work because of how society is structured. Women have traditionally targeted each other in personal contexts: You have the mother-in-law trope, the fake best friend, the classic sister rivalry, etc. But whether at home, at work, or in a social setting, this kind of insidious passive-aggression is often difficult to call out, since it operates under the sweet and smiley cover of feigned niceness.

toxic femininity: signs to look out for

If you often witness ladies engaging in any of the below telltale toxic behaviour in your social or professional circles, then toxic femininity may be at large:

  • Talking over and belittling other women.
  • Passive aggression – think eye-rolling, patronizing comments, fake laughing and niceties, smiley faces following a harsh-worded email, the list goes on…
  • Sabotage – lying for their own gain, giving misleading advice, mocking others for their work or decisions, trying to manipulate situations to make others look bad.
  • Jealousy, resentment, and bitterness towards other women for their looks, popularity and professional performance.
  • Competing with other female colleagues through their looks, dominance, work, or sexuality.

The bottom line

Once identified, should we then shun these supposedly “toxic” women. Wouldn’t that mean sinking to their level? We must bear in mind that toxic femininity comes from a place of long-term societal conditioning and deep insecurity. We are all just trying to get ahead and make our mark in an often-challenging world. Past hurdles can make others appear to be nothing more than competitors, standing in the way of our own recognition and success. But we must all get past this way of thinking to better support each other.

Once we realise that success is not a limited resource and that we can support and empower the women around us without our own flame diminishing – in fact, the opposite is true – then we can begin to ensure more supportive working environments and healthier female relationships.

Do women generally face more obstacles to rise to the top? Unfortunately, yes. Are women generally less aggressive and direct than men? This is often the case. But, at risk of conforming to gender norms, women tend to be particularly prone to destructive, sabotaging and passive-aggression when they feel threatened or insecure. It’s simply how we have been conditioned in this society. We are led to believe that this is how to be ambitious and competitive – but it’s not the only way.

Let’s be clear – it’s not the fierce determination and putting ourselves first that I am criticizing – that definitely can stay (and we could actually do with more of it.) However, when this thirst for success sours into pushing other women out of your way – then it’s time to take a step back.

Have you ever experienced toxic femininity? What’s your story? Share in the comments below!

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