27 September 2023

All fired up: How gaslighting has no place in the modern workplace

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James Eyers* says three Australian women are on a mission to end the subtle form of psychological abuse known as gaslighting.

Photo: pongvit

Dr Jemma Green has had enough.

She has detected a silent epidemic in the Australian workforce — gaslighting — and she wants to call it out.

This nuanced form of psychological abuse is rarely talked about and difficult to identify.

But Green believes the tactics are doing untold psychological damage to women across the Australian workforce and she wants to help eradicate it.

“One of the least talked about issues inside executive life for women is the amount of gaslighting that occurs,” says Green, a former Deputy Lord Mayor of Perth.

Gaslighting is a manipulation technique that is being deployed to freeze some women out of opportunity and promotion, damaging their confidence.

It plays to perceptions of women as emotional, irrational and not being critical thinkers.

It can be used in a workplace to detract from a woman’s perceived commerciality, particularly if she’s airing innovative, disruptive or unpopular proposals.

A gaslighter will use phrases such as “you’re overly sensitive”, “you’re being too emotional”, “you need to be more commercial” or “you’re not a team player”.

When the victim complains, she might hear: “You’re overreacting.”

Gaslighting can be so subtle, women don’t know it’s happening.

To others, comments can appear innocuous.

To the victims, each episode can seem small and almost irrelevant.

When they do work out what’s going on, many women aren’t inclined to react for fear of being singled out as “that woman” rocking the boat.

Green, the co-founder of Power Ledger, a software start-up in the energy industry, has been asking friends and acquaintances whether they have heard about or experienced gaslighting.

“More often than not, the answer is ‘Yes’,” she says.

“Gaslighting is unacceptable, and as a female business leader I’m personally making it my mission to call it out and put an end to it in the workplace.”

Emma Weston, co-founder of AgriDigital, which makes supply chain software, believes half of women won’t know what gaslighting is, but most will recognise the behaviour.

“Because it is so subtle, it is very easy to dismiss,” she says.

“It doesn’t have the obvious hallmarks of harassment or bullying and other workplace infringements.”

“But it can be equally devastating to the people involved.”

Marisa Warren, co-founder of Elevacao, which guides female entrepreneurs through capital-raising processes, says every woman who has come through her training program “has some negative experience around sexist or gaslighting behaviour”.

Green, Weston and Warren approached AFR BOSS magazine in the hope it will help other women — and men — identify gaslighting in workplaces and stamp it out.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission, Kate Jenkins says gaslighting is a growing concern.

“The terminology of gaslighting is not well understood and the conduct is quite subtle and can be quite difficult to identify,” Jenkins says.

Green had to manage a gaslighter last year after one of her female staff, who was hired because of her outstanding qualifications and expertise in an area relating to an important project, faced a male manager who didn’t fully understand the technical requirements.

The younger staff member’s brief changed daily, with the excuse that she had “failed” in the task.

She was being undermined in chatter with other employees on the open-plan floor.

“The incident highlights how easy it is for someone to undermine the confidence of another employee in the workplace,” Green says.

She ensured the perpetrator was removed, but Warren and Weston — who have both been victims of gaslighting — were forced out of their companies.

Warren worked at a global technology company.

She was well qualified and experienced, and regularly exceeded her targets.

But “as a way to keep me down, my boss would say things like ‘you are too driven, too ambitious, not a team player, you need to spend three years in the role before applying for a promotion’”, she says.

“He didn’t like me questioning things and would reply without explaining, saying ‘This is the way we are doing it.’”

She was made redundant and reckons she was made scapegoat.

“It certainly shook my confidence,” she says.

“I didn’t take it any further because I still had a lot of my career ahead of me.”

“But for six months, I couldn’t even think about getting another job.”

Weston’s gaslighting experience occurred after she identified operational problems in an agricultural company involving contracts negotiated before her arrival.

She tried to persuade the board and major shareholders about the serious commercial issues.

But “suggestions were made to me that I was having trouble coping with my executive position and responsibilities and that I was obsessing emotionally or neurotically over minor details because my judgement was clouded”, Weston says.

“I … lacked the experience to see this for what it was.”

“I started to believe that my decision-making was being affected.”

“I started to perceive myself as weak.”

“I started to believe what I was told.”

Weston offered her resignation, which was accepted.

Only much later did it dawn on her that she’d done nothing wrong.

Like Green and Warren, Weston doesn’t want to name the perpetrators or the companies involved.

“It’s about calling out behaviours that are not conducive to the type of society we want to have,” Weston says.

Lawyers say gaslighting is a form of workplace bullying and intimidation.

The Sex Discrimination Act (1984) prohibits direct and indirect discrimination, and fair work and safety regimes can also respond to repeated and unreasonable behaviour that creates a risk to a worker’s safety — mental and physical.

King & Wood Mallesons partner Philip Willox says gaslighting cases would be complex to bring because the subtle and psychological nature of the conduct makes it difficult to identify, call out and prove.

But he says workplaces should be attuned to the activity and could use their codes of conduct to protect staff facing the harassment.

“If someone is deliberately, or even subconsciously, undermining somebody in this way, that fits within bullying and harassment regimes,” Willox says.

The three women who spoke to BOSS say education and communication in the workplace, in sports and at schools, clubs, and politics should be the starting point for tackling the epidemic.

“If we want truly great leadership, we must find a way to combat and bring to account gaslighting, and support the women facing it,” Green says.

“If we want diverse workplaces, we need to do better.”

* James Eyers is a Senior Reporter for The Australian Financial Review.

This article first appeared at www.afr.com.

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