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5 min

Open Gender Monologues — Toxic Work Environments Part 1

Introduction The year is 2020. We’re still far from achieving gender equality, and many women still don’t feel comfortable at work. This International Women’s Day (IWD) 2020, we’ve decided to go back to basics – and advocate for better and healthier work environments. We know, #metoo is very 2018, but toxic…

A woman screaming.
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March 8, 2020


The year is 2020. We’re still far from achieving gender equality, and many women still don’t feel comfortable at work. This International Women’s Day (IWD) 2020, we’ve decided to go back to basics – and advocate for better and healthier work environments. We know, #metoo is very 2018, but toxic work environments drive many talented women away from our fields of openness, transparency, accountability, and civic tech. If we, those who claim to want a better society for all, can’t create a healthy work environment for our own employees, how can we preach that to others?

We’ve written about this topic before, in 2017. However, lately we’ve been hearing many Open Heroines community members discussing this topic again, and we’ve seen organisations — that promise to tackle these issues and publish new guidelines – not deliver on commitments. We don’t have statistics on women affected by toxic work environments because that research is seldom funded. However, we do know that fear keeps women from coming forward, and organisations bury stories. The stories exist, and it’s time to hear them and do something about it.

So today, we’re re-shining a light on this topic. We hope that it will open up a meaningful discussion – though we still don’t have the solutions, but we know that speaking publicly is the first step towards change.

In the words of Audre Lorde, “The silence will not protect you.”

Over the next week, we will publish a series of monologues from women in toxic work environments in the open data, open government, and civic tech spaces. Some authors agreed to tell their story using their real names, some are choosing to tell their stories anonymously. We hope that reading these stories will help you, as well as those around you, to recognize toxic behaviour patterns, and reach out to friends, family, and trusted colleagues for help when needed.

Open Heroines is working on creating helpful resources for handling toxic work environments this year. In the meantime, some Heroines have found these resources useful:

The one about the boss who yells — by Kelly Halseth

The bullying began within weeks of starting my new job. As a new hire, my request for support and guidance from my direct manager, who was also the Executive Director, were mostly met with agitation and responses like, “That’s what I hired you for, figure it out,” or, “I don’t want to have to fucking [do that] again.” This dynamic continued for months, and I’m not proud of it, but I did what most women are socialized to do. I internalized it. I thought I needed to adjust my behaviour to work with him or I was just bad at the job. My internal dialogue was reinforced as fellow colleagues would tell me that was just the way things went with him. “Yeah, I noticed he does treat women like that,” a male colleague once declared. They even offered up tips on how to behave around him so he wouldn’t snap or belittle you.

The first of many confronting incidents occurred when he and I were on a business trip. I had fantastically failed to behave in a way that would keep him from exploding (please read the sarcasm) when we were sitting in a coffee shop. He yelled while angrily slamming the table with his fist, “Are you fucking kidding me, I can’t believe this is fucking happening. How could this be fucking happening? The policy is really fucking clear. You must put all fucking documents in the fucking Google Drive.” Yes, you read that right. He verbally abused me, in public no less, because I did not put a document in our organization’s Google Drive. In a state of shock, I somehow managed to stomach his presence for the planned marathon day of important meetings. On the way home, we sat down at the airport waiting for our flight and he brought me a glass of wine, offered a high five and said, “You should have spoken up more,” referring to my performance in the series of meetings, “But job well done.”

It took me until this incident to recognize that his behaviour really had nothing to do with me. Even if I had put all the documents in the world into Google Drive, he would still exert his power in abusive ways.

I suffered over a year of bullying, harassment and verbal abuse because he was a powerful and influential man in the field of civic tech, and I wanted to make the world a better place through civic technology and design. However, I did not suffer silently. I spoke out. I spoke directly to him, I spoke with my colleagues and operations manager, and I even informed the Board of Directors, through an Executive Directors review process. People with more power than myself knew this was happening, and nothing meaningful was done. To no one’s surprise, his behaviour continued to worsen.

Over the course of that year, there were too many incidents to describe in this one post. But I’ll leave you with one more – that of a team meeting that will probably be seared into my memory for life. The entire team was sitting together, discussing office norms, determining how we’d treat our office space, and how we expect to be treated in the space. He (who shall not be named because he would probably sue me) got so upset by an idea that a women colleague suggested, that he slammed a post-it on the table and then the wall, all the while calling her idea “dumb.” I stood up and said how inappropriate his behaviour was and that I didn’t want to work in a place where someone uses their power to silence people in this way. His response was,“Your colleague needs to learn how to communicate,” and he left the room.

This was the post-it that broke the camel’s back. I quit a few days later.

I would love to tell you that this man no longer sits in such a position of power, that he was held accountable for what he has done to me and other women under his management. Unfortunately, this is not the case. By all accounts, his power continues to grow. This is exactly why, when possible, we need to tell our stories. Too many men in leadership positions walk away unscathed and unaccountable, while women and those not in positions of power are left with the consequences, with the trauma.

Now, this is where I was going to leave some advice to those who are going through something similar but unfortunately, I think women are pretty damn good at navigating situations like these already. However, I will give some advice to men:

  1. Stop using your patriarchal power and privilege to abuse, harass, and belittle women.
  2. Silence is violence. If you see something happening, SPEAK UP. Use your power and privilege to fight alongside women to dismantle the patriarchy.
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