5 Ways to Speak Out in a Toxic Work Environment



There is a social conundrum for women in which speaking one’s opinion openly and flatly can be considered “un-ladylike.”

It’s sort of a frustrating conundrum because trivializing any female opinion someone does not want to hear can occur easily just by accusing her of being a bitch, of being hyper-sensitive, or, of course, everyone’s favorite: Is it your menses, dear?

First and foremost, this social practice of gaslighting women who are being harassed or steamrolled is not the fault of the women at hand. Let’s make that perfectly clear.

Gaslighting refers to the practice of convincing someone that their opinions or emotions are warped. It happens across all social boundaries and classifications, and it is a brutally manipulative tool.

There are other ways that women are subtly silenced in education, work spaces, and even relationships.

Several examples of female silencing include not ever asking for female opinions, ignoring complaints, creating a general environment in which women feel unwelcome to speak up, and the atmosphere created by cultural messages bombarding everyone with the idea that ladies should be passive — especially if they want a man! – which also assumes gender binary and heteronormativity.

So if you’re ever in a position where you feel uncomfortable or unwelcomed speaking up, here are a few suggestions that I sincerely hope can help.

1. Understand Paradigms of Normativity

The most important thing you can possibly glean from this article (if you haven’t already) is that the social conundrums and situations that may be making you feel harassed and uncomfortable are not your fault.

The compilation of these phenomena represents a normalized paradigm of victim blaming.

In fact, superiors in situations of harassment will often say that the individual never spoke up or did not make it seem that serious, when in fact, it was the very harassment itself that made the person feel unable to speak up.

Many types of harassment include cultural and societal factors that work to teach women and other subordinated groups at a young age that their opinions are not appreciated or clever – that nobody will want to hear them.

They are taught to check first if they are being over sensitive or currently menstruating, and then to be ladylike and to learn that your womanhood is to be meek, diffident, and compliant.

The first protest against oppression must be realizing, internalizing, and acting upon your own individual knowledge that those paradigms are constructed and not universal truths — before you even speak out.

2. Get One-on-One Conference

Don’t feel pressured to say anything in public at the exact moment an incident occurs.

In fact, evading conflict can be helpful in mediating later.

If you feel comfortable confronting the harasser or offender in a calm and professional way, be confident in your voice and experience. If they dismiss your claims or you feel uncomfortable and nervous, take the time when you’re ready to address the situation with a superior.

Specific instances of harassment are likely to occur in a situation with overt power differentials, such as an environment dominated by men or just one that glorifies masculine qualities.

Perhaps there is an environment where it’s not cool to bring up any issue with the laid-back sexist and blonde jokes or the fact that male counterparts and superiors feel entitled to comment on your every physical quality and perhaps you do not agree.

It is a privilege to be considered normal. Some examples in our society include being white, cisgender, able-bodied, male, and heterosexual.

Sometimes, if everyone around you is able to laugh and partake in the same activities that make you feel extremely anxious, you may be the victim of a culturally invisible power differential.

Anyone who falls outside of the culturally normalized identities (and sometimes even those from within who express deviant ideas), will feel like a killjoy or an outcast if they represent an experience that deviates from the norm.

You might fall into several marginalized categories that strengthen the societal oppression against your voice, opinion, and experience.

If in a work, school, or other professional setting, consider taking one-on-one time with a superior.

If this is happening on a personal basis, consider engaging in a non-confrontational discussion later in private or in a public place like a coffee shop or restaurant, so that you can be candid with each other.

The goal is that removing the oppressive context of normativity can remove the threatening charge against open communication.

3. Seek Out a Sympathetic Ally

If you are feeling apprehensive about sharing your feelings of discomfort or discrimination overtly, consider an ally, friend, or compassionate acquaintance, if one is available. This person can fulfill several important roles on your road to self-assertion.

Sometimes, internalized messages of patriarchy, heteronormativity, transphobia, ableism, racism, classism, and the like can cloud our personal perceptions of an event.

Through the internalized paradigms of mainstream culture, it’s relatively easy to find yourself reiterating harmful mantras or even victim blaming yourself.

Where does an ally tie into this?

A truly helpful ally can validate your experience and rejuvenate your acknowledgment of injustice.

If you explain how you feel you have been harassed or mistreated, another set of ears can potentially help get your bearings on the situation.

I am in no way suggesting that just any person will be able to fulfill this role. It is one of many possibilities, but different scenarios and social groups will affect your available resources.

An ally might also be able to help mediate a discussion with an aggressor or simply be present for moral support and witness as you confront a situation yourself.

Depending on the type of situation, there are many resources to seek out allies!

4. Disentangle Insults and Stereotypes from Facts

I want to be as clear as possible in acknowledging that emotional manipulation of situations occurs, in which a person can be deprived of an objective view of the situation through no fault of their own.

This article is not equipped to handle issues of emotional abuse, for which there are many more appropriate sources.

That being said, teasing out the stereotypes and insults that might be unconsciously used in a discussion or debate from a factual account is tricky but helpful, if the situation allows.

Some examples of this problematic language include insinuating menstruation, insinuating hyper-sensitivity or another hyper-emotional state, telling you to calm down when you are not worked up (or perhaps, even if you are), or aggressive, identity-based (or insinuating) remarks. And the list goes on.

When engaging in discussion about harassment or feelings of oppression, you can attempt to discuss some of the fallacies and stereotypes your counterpart calls upon.

If someone is using specific misogynistic stereotypes and language, for example, I ask if they would say the same to a male counterpart.

As people feel more pressured and accused, they tend to get more defensive, which is how many individuals find themselves shutting down valid and important opinions without meaning to. It’s a common trope in race, gender, and sexuality discussions.

People often feel like pointing out cultural issues of oppression is calling them a bad person if they did not intend to hurt, oppress, or harass you.

It’s hard to break down those anxieties and get to the root of the problem.

Having an ally present for this step can also be helpful.

They can be an objective witness or act as a mediator if they are comfortable in the role.

You should never feel alone in your struggles, and you should never be embarrassed to speak up or by the fact that you struggle to speak out.

Culture has set up a lot of traps over a very long time that work to maintain certain power stratifications.

5. Be Confident and Proud of Accomplishments

When you make progress being more assertive in life, remember to step back and give yourself credit.

Each situation in which you feel harassed or bullied is a new journey.

Even the most assertive and confident people find themselves in a situation that stifles their voice, and that is nothing to be ashamed of.

Throw yourself a celebration whenever you meet personal goals, including speaking up.

Also, consider ways to be an ally for others by practicing speaking up about oppressive language and situations that affect other people.

Remember also to treat yourself to beautiful self-affirmations. Practicing self-love in peaceful times can grant greater perspective and strength during future tumults.


This is a brief journey through a short list of suggestions based on some deeply rooted cultural rhetoric.

Patriarchal ideology is a form of gender-based power stratification that makes female assertiveness a deviance, which is one of many forces that work to silence marginalized groups.

Since every person and situation is different, only you will be able to decide what works in your life.

How do you find courage to stand up for yourself when it’s most difficult? Please share your advice and experience in the comments!

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Kelsey Lueptow is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. Kelsey is a small town amateur yogi, poet, and feminist from Wisconsin. She’s a single mother and seasonal waitress working on a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Women’s Studies. Caffeine addict and book enthusiast, Kelsey spends her time playing with her son and hanging out at coffee shops. Read her articles here.