Demystified: My “Feminist” Boss Bullies her Female Employees

A few weeks ago, I was having drinks with an ex-colleague who told me a story about my previous boss. This supervisor, “Tina,” had recently gone off during a work party, condemning the many sexual abusers coming to light. She brought up her daughters and how it infuriated her that they had to watch out for those who might harass or demean them.

Beer to my lips, I smiled and shook my head with disbelief. Because this woman, loudly espousing equality and respect for women, had bullied me to the point where I’d quit my job.

Years before I had come to the company with hope and optimism, accepting a title jump even though the company had offered me less than my last job. Still, I had bonded with my interviewers and the work would be more creative, so I negotiated as much as I could and accepted.

This woman, loudly espousing equality and respect for women, had bullied me to the point where I’d quit my job.

But even initially, things were weird. One of my two managers, who was supposed to be training me, was a late-thirties man who would spend hours talking to me in my office about his personal life. At first this was okayI was flattered that he valued my opinionbut then he revealed that he was telling his wife and then his therapist things that I’d said. He also argued with me multiple times that women had enjoyed a passive form of power throughout humanity by controlling the family. He ragged me about giving our boss “trouble” by negotiating my salary. And finally, he said it had been “cute” when I’d talked to him about a personal project at an after-work happy hour.

Annoyed and disturbed, I managed to get some distance, but was relieved when he was promoted to a different part of the company. I now worked below a woman named Elaine, though, after a senior-level employee left, a manager was hired in her place.

Initially, my new manager Tina was warm and friendly, and our whole team was excited to work with her. During the first week of her job, we all went to a conference and I found myself telling her about my personal work in a taxi to the airport, without the fear that she would later bring it up in a sexist and condescending way. We also bonded over feminism. Tina had three daughters and made it clear she was raising them to stand up for themselves. There were some odd partslike her somewhat inappropriate gossiping about other employeesbut for the most part, she treated us well and gave us the time and space to keep running our projects.

It was about six months in when Tina showed her true colors. She first went after a female colleague of mine, suddenly critical of her work and tearing it to shreds. My colleague was upset, but she was also dealing with some personal issues, and worried that maybe they actually were affecting her work.

It was about six months in when Tina showed her true colors.

And then Tina came after me. Right before a big meeting, Tina complained about my materials that she had already approved. Tina’s boss, Elaine, was unhappy about some of the elements, and Tina was seemingly blaming them on me. I was surprised, but managed to get through the meeting. Afterwards, Tina called me into her office and told me she knew I’d tried to pin the blame on her. It seemed like a manipulative tactic, and I got first upset and then furious. I tried to talk to Elaine, since she was my former manager and knew my work ethic. I assumed she wouldn’t want this to continue. But to my surprise, Elaine pulled Tina into the room, and they both proceeded to reprimand me and my work.

The next few months went from bad to worse. The warm and friendly supervisor I’d known became a harsh and suspicious micromanager. I’d always been a hardworking perfectionist who had gotten along with everyone, so the sudden enmity and criticisms were jarring.

Luckily, I was close friends with my colleagues and was able to lean on them for support. In doing so, we came to realize we were being treated differently based on our backgrounds. Those who were either male, or female with children, were largely exempt from Tina’s rage. Given that Tina had daughters, it became clear to those of us being mistreated that Tina was acting like an angry and controlling mother.

Those who were either male, or female with children, were largely exempt from Tina’s rage.

Last year, after I was far away from the terrifying Reign of Tina, I came across this article in the Atlantic: Why Do Women Bully Each Other at Work? Paragraph after paragraph, I nodded in recognition:

Their stories formed a pattern of wanton meanness. Serena Palumbo, another lawyer, told me about the time she went home to Italy to renew her visa and returned to find that a female co-worker had told their boss “that my performance had been lackluster and that I was not focused.” Katrin Park, a communications director, told me that a female former manager reacted to a minor infraction by screaming, “How can I work when you’re so incompetent?!” A friend of mine, whom I’ll call Catherine, had a boss whose tone grew witheringly harsh just a few months into her job at a nonprofit. “This is a perfect example of how you run forward thoughtlessly, with no regard to anything I am saying,” the woman said in one email, before exploding at Catherine in all caps. Many women told me that men had undermined them as well, but it somehow felt different—worse—when it happened at the hands of a woman, a supposed ally.

I realized that this was the reason it had hurt so much. Women I’d admired had turned on me, Mean Girls-style, for reasons I couldn’t fully comprehend. Sure, they were both stressed out in an industry losing money. They were also working in a company with a clear glass ceiling at a certain management level. But I’d also had female bosses at previous jobs in similar circumstances who had supported, encouraged, and appreciated me.

In the end, the toxic work environment caused me to reassess my life and apply to grad school in a completely new field. Today, I couldn’t be happier about my new life, in which I’ve gained brilliant mentors who appreciate the work that I do. Sometimes it still hits me how glad I am that I never have to walk into that building again.

But the shadow of Tina still haunts me. I wrote an official letter of complaint when I left the company, which I can only assume was forgotten or buried. I continue to hear horror stories about Tina. I was also there to support a talented, well-respected former colleague who Tina decided to push out of the company in the midst of a partner’s medical crisis.

The shadow of Tina still haunts me.

Though I’m glad my friend got out, it pains me to think of others who will happily accept jobs working under Tina. She’s running her group like some kind of Game of Thrones ruler, wielding power and taking down imagined enemies. It’s ridiculous, and yet somehow her managers continue to accept this bullying behavior. In fact, she’s even been promoted.

From the Atlantic article, it’s clear that there are many female bosses out there who lash out at the women who work for them. If you manage women (particularly single women), consider if you treat them differently or worse than other employees. Because even if you loudly speak out against the patriarchy, you could still be a part of the problem.

Photo by Christin Hume.