Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying?

Among the more popular posts on this blog is a December 2012 piece titled “Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic.” It starts this way:

Specific workplace bullying tactics can run from the obvious and transparent to the remarkably deceitful and calculated.  Among the most treacherous of the latter is “gaslighting,” defined in Wikipedia as:

…a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity. It may range simply from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.

Recently, spurred by an article summarized below, individuals active in the workplace anti-bullying movement have been discussing via social media whether gaslighting is related to gender. I think it’s a question worth raising here.

Gaslighting and gender

2012 piece posted to the Good Men Project site suggests that gaslighting may be a gendered phenomenon — in other words, it posits that women are disproportionately subjected to gaslighting behaviors, including in the workplace. In “Why Women Aren’t Crazy,” author Yashar Ali writes:

You’re so sensitive. You’re so emotional. You’re defensive. You’re overreacting. Calm down. Relax. Stop freaking out! You’re crazy! I was just joking, don’t you have a sense of humor? You’re so dramatic. Just get over it already!

Sound familiar?

If you’re a woman, it probably does.

Do you ever hear any of these comments from your spouse, partner, boss, friends, colleagues, or relatives after you have expressed frustration, sadness, or anger about something they have done or said?

…And this is the sort of emotional manipulation that feeds an epidemic in our country, an epidemic that defines women as crazy, irrational, overly sensitive, unhinged.

…I want to introduce a helpful term to identify these reactions: gaslighting.

There are a lot of built-in assumptions behind Ali’s article about male and female behavior and gender differences, and I haven’t sorted through their many implications. The piece certainly stirred the social media when it was published. Witness the 900+ comments left to the article (many of which are quite thoughtful), as well as a responsive piece from Mark Greene.

Tied to workplace bullying?

The topic certainly is relevant to workplace bullying, where issues of gender are complex and multifaceted. Ali’s lede paragraph invokes phrases used by many skilled workplace bullies. And no doubt they have been used in domestic abuse and sexual harassment situations as well, where women are the common targets.

This is not to say that men aren’t on the receiving end, in ways that have their own gendered message: Being tagged as oversensitive or emotional may be intended and/or perceived as a challenge to one’s masculinity.

But I’ll place a heavy bet that these lines are directed at a lot more women than men, including in the workplace. They are meant to plant seeds of self-doubt that add to the crazy-making dynamics of being bullied, at times with a big dose of discriminatory intent. The e-mail chain you were left off of…the meeting you weren’t included in…the lunch at the club you weren’t invited to…You’re so sensitive. You’re so emotional. You’re defensive. You’re overreacting.

Of course, this is just the comparatively minor stuff. If you’ve seen more harrowing, malicious forms of gaslighting related to work — sabotage, stalking, electronic harassment, and so forth — you know what I mean. This can be among the most vicious of bullying tactics.

10 responses

  1. It probably did not start with Freud, but his work with women survivors of sexual assault began truthfully, then with disapproval of his peers turned to labeling these women hysterical, which seems to be a form of gaslighting. I have often fought back in situations where bosses gaslighted me and the result was retaliation.

    Thank you for naming it and providing the link to the “crazy” article. Calling it what it is can be a tool for women to take back their power.

  2. Ordinarily, I find the posts here illuminating but referencing both Ali’s and Greene’s articles actually muddy the water. A close family member (male) was the victim of workplace bullying. I was a victim of domestic abuse. Both involve gaslighting.

    900 comments on Ali’s article means we should be talking about gaslighting. Unfortunately, Greene’s apologist piece calling for victims to take responsibility for their abuse detract from the issue.

    During Domestic Violence training a great deal of emphasis is put on recognizing abuse, including gaslighting, in same sex and with male and female abusers.
    However, the the Greene article is about victim blaming and shaming. Greene calls for victims to take responsibility for their role in being abused. (“victims must also take responsibility for the role [he or she] play[s] in these processes”) Greene ignores the insidiousness of gaslighting. Greene calls for the target of gaslighting to reflect upon his/her role and reactions.
    This is EXACTLY what an abuser wants.
    i.e. How Greene’s victim self-examination goes: S/he keeps pointing out that I’m overreacting. S/he says it so often, s/he must be right. Shame on me for overreacting.
    Additionally, Greene (inappropriately) alludes to studies regarding gender and potential “abusers”. A large number of such studies focus on only physical aggression as abuse and ignore the pattern of psychological abuse (gaslighting) Further, many of these studies use CTS as the tool which also ignores context. To oversimplify, CTS would mean Francine Hughes was the violent on when she set the bed on fire because her husband was asleep at the time.

    Yes, Ali’s article was narrowly focused gaslighting and gender but Greene’s article was overgeneralized and inappropriate blame shifting.

  3. This is exactly what MGILL did to me in the summer of 2009. The barrage of emails sent to me at night for berating me for not doing my job and making three false accusations in a matter of four weeks made me feel that I was losing my mind. I showed responsibility by reporting it to her boss and HR who ignored my pleas for help.

  4. The ‘gaslighting’ I’ve seen lately has come from my recent employer, he says what’s on his mind, being to insensitive. So I’m constantly second guessing myself, ‘am I really like that’, this situation always doubt my own thoughts and it’s disturbing me. Gaslighting makes you feel hopeless and I have troubled making simple decisions, I believe this is a form of workplace bullying which should be stop.

  5. My experience with workplace abuse certainly included gaslighting — or more to the point outright lying.This including a supervisor denying an agreement she had made months earler although emails confirmed in black and white that the agreement had been made. Management totalyignored the
    evidentiary proof. In addition, the supevisor used the lie to bait the employee to speak up and clarify
    the situation, as confirmed by the email, when at this point management had become so toxic, that
    as she knew, whatever the employee said in her defense would be used against her. Yet a deeper level of lying and gaslighting. The supervisor continues her position despite multiple instances of her
    dishonesty, of which management knew or should have known. The employee was forced to retire
    early. What recourse do employees have when mangement gives supervisors/managers carte blanche to lie — even in the face of docomentation showing the dishonesty. All the more grievous this occurred in an agency whose mission is protect employee rights. The rot is so deep, it’s hard to
    even calculate — supervisors are permitted to abuse their power to exact personal vedetta in direct
    contradiction the mission of the agency, much more common decency.
    It’s hard not to be pessimistic (and I am naturally sanguine and operation) where there is such
    corruption and it is confrmed all the way up to the highest position in the agency. Take away a moral
    compass and no agency is going to be peforming its statutory, never mind the deleterious effect
    on emloyees. I personally ended up with major depression/anxiety and PTSD and premature.
    The abusive supevisor and manager continue wreaking who knows what further perfidy. To the extent that government agencies are not totally corrupt (and they may be in certain cases),
    top management should be held responsible for cleaning up the unethical mess.
    The “civil” in civil service is rapidly being stripped.

  6. “Gas lighting”. Another term I have learned since starting to read your posts and the linked articles. More healing ‘Ah Ha’ moments for me and consequently the other wounded healers fortunate enough to cross my path. Keep writing!

  7. Pingback: And Social Justice for All: A Lesson from 39 Years | A Chef, a Prof, & a Bub

  8. Pingback: Civility and Authenticity in the Workplace | Mira Charlotte Krishnan

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