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
A 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!
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.