Why gaslighting is holding women back in the workplace

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Photo: Reuters

Many of us have been gaslit at some point, whether we realise it or not. Although commonly applied to romantic relationships, gaslighting is a very real problem faced by women in the workplace.

A term now firmly ingrained in pop culture, gaslighting is used to describe a form of manipulation or emotional abuse. Put simply, it refers to someone trying to convince someone else they’re wrong about something, even when they’re not — leaving them questioning their own perception of reality.

When Laura* started a new job, everything was great – but things gradually started to change. Later, she realised she had been gaslit by her boss.

“It was really subtle. He’d challenge me about things I was fairly confident that I knew more about and had been brought on board because I was so experienced with them,” she says. “There would be carefully-selected phrases, like: ‘anyone who has ever done… would have known that’, with the underlying suggestion that I had somehow missed the point, or was basically wrong.”

Although she tried not to take it personally, her manager’s behaviour gradually took its toll. “I’d stop suggesting things or engaging in meetings or conversation, and I then found myself questioned about my behaviour,” she says. “When I tried to explain that I felt undermined, I was told that perhaps it was my own interpretation of things that was the problem. I wondered if it was and withdrew further as I wondered if perhaps I wasn’t actually that good at my job at all.”

“I’ve never been the most confident person, especially when it came to my own abilities, and that lack of confidence became deeper and started to spread from work into my personal life,” she says.

Eventually she left her job and within a few weeks, began to feel more like herself. “Ironically, I had actually not heard of gaslighting until I was describing the whole scenario to someone and straight away they used the term. Once I looked into it, I realised it was exactly what I’d been through.”

Gaslighting is subtle

When we think of a bully, we tend to imagine someone who is harassing you in an obvious way, like name-calling. Gaslighting, on the other hand, is more subtle. It’s usually easy to cover up, for example, by telling someone they are overreacting or imagining a scenario that doesn’t actually exist.

Rather than a one-off incident, it’s usually a pattern of behaviour designed to exert control over someone, explains careers coach Lesley Gorman, a member of the Life Coach Directory.
“In the workplace it may be such things as withholding information that you need for a project then denying it was withheld, lying quite blatantly about things that have or haven’t happened leading to you questioning yourself,” she told Yahoo Finance UK.

It can also mean undermining and criticising you or your work, but also offering praise, so you’re never sure exactly where you stand. It might be your boss offering you a pay rise for reaching a target, then denying the conversation ever took place – or making a derogatory comment, but acting as if they didn’t.

“If you confront a gaslighter they will deny there is an issue, possibly accuse you of being over emotional, irrational or imagining things,” she adds. The impact can be devastating – destroying confidence, self-esteem and in some cases, forcing women out of their jobs.

Claire*, 29, was working at a charity when experienced this kind of bullying. “There was one particular instance where we ran a campaign to help women spot the signs of abusive relationships. The member of staff didn’t like the wording of a blog title and told me ‘I was placing the blame of abuse on the victims shoulders’. It absolutely broke me, and as more of this happened in the months afterwards my mental health deteriorated significantly.”

If you suspect you’re being gaslit, the first thing to do is gather examples. “Ask yourself some key questions to confirm that you are experiencing gaslighting or bullying,” says Hephzi Pemberton, founder of Equality Group. This might include constantly second-guessing yourself, asking yourself if you are too sensitive, or if you feel like you’re going crazy, she adds.

“If the company fails to respond to your claims and you are sure that you have been a victim of gaslighting, then you can consider whether you think the bullying behaviour is linked to a protected characteristic, such as your gender, and make a harassment claim,” Pemberton says.

Gorman advises to keep a documented record of all incidents, no matter how small. “This is about evidencing a pattern of behaviour rather than one-off events,” she says. “This information will be vital if you decide to take action against them.”

“If you trust your HR department, after all this could depend on the gaslighter’s standing in the company, then ask for a confidential appointment to discuss your concerns – for all you know you might not be the first person that this has happened to,” Gorman adds. “Talk to friends about this, you will need reassurance that you are not imagining this behaviour.”

“If you can’t face the fight then I do believe that walking away is a viable option,” she says. “Gaslighting over a period of time will leave most people with a lowered self-esteem and sense of self and not everyone can face going through something like a grievance procedure. You have to do what is right for you but if you do leave at least consider seeking legal advice about how to do this.”

Kate Palmer, associate director of advisory at the HR and employment law firm Peninsula, also offers advice to employers to tackle the problem. “Update internal policies to include examples of gaslighting – this helps confirm that this behaviour will not be tolerated,” she says. “Remind staff of the rules on workplace bullying, appropriate conduct and harassment – ensure your ‘open door’ policy is reiterated to encourage staff to raise any concerns they have with yourself, HR or an appropriate manager.”

For Claire, now happily self-employed, walking away to protect her mental health was the only solution. “I know it’s really hard, but try to prioritise self-care despite everything – your brain needs space to relax and to be grounded to face the task at hand. Don’t despair – remember there are better things to come,” she says.

“I’ve designed a life I love and I do work that excites me every day. It’s the absolute best feeling, when only three years ago my job was putting me through so much that I could not see a way out.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities.