Work Advice: Dealing with a toxic ‘girlboss’ might require moving on

Work Advice: Dealing with a toxic ‘girlboss’ might require moving on

I’m seeking advice on how to handle a toxic girlboss who is the chief marketing officer (CMO) at the company I joined six months ago and whom I work closely with. After bonding with co-workers, I’ve realized her leadership is weighing down her entire team. We all dread turning in tasks to be ripped apart and are scared to come into the office when she’s there. Her feedback is often delivered on team calls, screaming in conference rooms everyone can hear, in front of managers. When business and the economy began to take a turn shortly after I joined, I began to feel like she was blaming the results on me individually.


I have been writing down her specific comments. Some examples:

  • On business being slow: “This is when you work 20 hours a [week] and don’t [complain] about it.”
  • She compared my preference for a particular software to “defending a friend who committed murder because they’ve only ever been nice to you.”
  • “I see myself like a military sergeant, and my job is to get all my people into position to attack.” (We sell luxury accessories.)

She also says, “I would have done it this way” after the fact, instead of providing clear instruction ahead of time.


I won’t deny that she is smart, and I have learned a career-changing amount from her. But I am miserable. We don’t have HR. My own boss, who reports directly to the CMO, is coping by putting up a wall about the situation. My peers and I are confused by our boss’s lack of reaction to the harsh criticism she receives in front of us. She has never addressed how awful the interactions are or checked in on how we’re doing.

Do we hope poor business means the most expensive get cut? Do we rally for change, risking an abusive and unproductive confrontation? Or do I simply endure until my one-year mark? The girlboss in me would never stand for this behavior, but I feel gaslighted and don’t know how to act.

Some background for anyone who isn’t glued to social media: The term “girlboss” comes from the title of a retail CEO’s 2014 memoir, later adapted into a TV series. It was originally a term of empowerment meant to represent a new kind of business leader, uniquely female and feminine, breaking all previous molds of corporate success. Now it’s mostly used ironically (including in this letter, I assume), showing up online in memes such as “gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss.”


Lawsuits and social media exposés have revealed some famously woman-led companies to be toxic and discriminatory despite their pro-woman veneer, their celebrated leaders as flawed as any capitalist icon.

Likewise, underneath your CMO’s gendered moniker is a stock character we’ve seen throughout history in various guises: an arrogant, delusional, hypercritical bully, devoid of self-awareness or empathy, using a bombastic personality to either charm followers or bludgeon dissenters. A narcis-sister, if we must.


But that doesn’t mean she isn’t successful. She’s talented enough at marketing to convince you she’s some kind of genius who can teach you through brutality what you’d never learn through gentler mentorship — even though, by all accounts, her genius isn’t enough to help your company withstand a turbulent economy.


She has cowed everyone into meekly enduring her tirades and ludicrous self-serving rhetoric. When the ax starts swinging, even if she’s producing the least return on investment for the company, she will push everyone else in front of the blade without batting a cat-lined eyelid.

You’re smart to commiserate with colleagues and document her outlandish statements. These testimonies are beacons that will illuminate what is real and true when you doubt yourself in the face of her gaslighting.


If you and your peers speak frankly about how the toxic executive’s abuse is affecting you, there’s a chance you can persuade your direct boss to step out from behind her stone wall and speak up. Sometimes people in intermediary positions mistakenly believe that stoic forbearance is the best way to shelter people under them, when it actually just makes them powerless witnesses.


But without your boss’s involvement, I doubt you and your colleagues will be able to convince higher-ups that this toxic executive is doing their brand more harm than good. People like your CMO rise to power with the support of systemic incompetence, apathy, fear, even corruption. Everything you describe — fearful underlings, disengaged managers, unchecked verbal abuse — points to a dysfunctional system that has developed like a cyst to protect this toxic individual. Dismantling it will take a degree of oversight and reform that is probably beyond your power to deliver, even collectively.

The “girlboss” in you needs to woman up and decline to participate in this system. Use your excess down time to build your network and explore opportunities at other employers. Six more months of tirades will go by much faster when you’re working toward a better future.

And while you don’t want to bad-mouth your current employer in interviews, you are free to explain to your boss, and anyone else at your employer who will listen, exactly what drove you out.

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