‘Priti Reminds Me Of My Toxic Female Boss’

A Cabinet Office enquiry found that Home Secretary Priti Patel created what was described as a 'climate of fear' in her department. But why does workplace bullying by female bosses continue to go unnoticed?

Toxic female boss

by Sarah Rainey |

The recent cabinet office inquiry into allegations of bullying by Priti Patel found the Home Secretary was guilty of breaching the ministerial code, by creating what one civil servant described as a ‘climate of fear’ in her department. Despite evidence to the contrary, Ms Patel denied all the allegations and, with the support of the Prime Minister, managed to keep her job.

Kirsty*, 32, a legal secretary from Epping, knows all too well what it’s like to work in a ‘climate of fear’. She had been in her new job less than two hours when the bullying started. ‘My boss came over to my desk and told me I was wearing too much make-up,’ she recalls. ‘She said it really loudly so the whole office could hear. I was mortified.

‘We were the only women in our team but rather than support me, she treated me like dirt,’ Kirsty continues. ‘She used to stand behind me when I wrote emails and laugh at my spelling mistakes. Once, she made me stay in the office until 9pm setting up her new iPhone. I went home in tears.’

Kirsty – who has since quit her job and is now much happier – is far from alone in facing degrading treatment at the hands of a female boss. A recent study found that ‘Queen bee syndrome’ – the phenomenon of women discriminating against female co-workers as they rise in seniority – is getting worse. In fact, the Workplace Bullying Institute found that women bully other women up to 80% of the time, with female bosses more likely to engage in job sabotage and emotional abuse.

The difficulty with this sort of behaviour, experts say, is that it often goes unseen, meaning it can be allowed to continue for longer than more obvious forms of aggression. And, because it doesn’t fit the classic ‘shouty’ stereotype, it isn’t taken as seriously as it should be.

Behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings says the characteristics of a toxic boss tend to be subtle, including belittling employees, undermining their confidence through micro-managing and ‘accidentally’ excluding them from meetings. ‘They know the emotional triggers that are likely to make you feel undervalued and use them in a deliberate way to control you,’ she adds, while female managers, ‘are often more unpleasant to women under their employ as they see them as a threat to their power.’

Such actions are, more often than not, ooted in insecurity – something Londoner Laura*, 28, experiences daily in her digital marketing job. ‘My boss is four years older than me and she puts me down at every opportunity,’ she says. ‘Whenever I have an idea, she passes it off as her own, and she never gives me any praise.’

So how best to combat such toxicity? ‘Ignoring your boss, pretending you didn’t hear them or smiling back can be quite disarming,’ says Jo. ‘If your boss can see their behaviour doesn’t affect you, they are less likely to continue.’

But, she adds, if things go from bad to worse, keep a diary of specific incidents so you have written evidence if you decide to report her – and consider talking to someone outside work.

‘Speaking to my mum every evening really helps me,’ says Laura. ‘I go into the office with a clear head and rise above the pettiness, knowing it’s my boss who’s got the problem, not me.’

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