Townhouse Notes: Toxic Work Environments: The History of an Idea

Allison Miller | Dec 3, 2018

The AHA Townhouse“Toxic work environment” feels like a newfangled coinage for a transhistorical phenomenon: workplaces that don’t function due to factors like rigid hierarchies, autocratic leadership, and prevalent harassment. Workers, supervisors, and executives can all be “toxic,” as can interpersonal relationships, situations, and teams. And so, as a number of recent books and articles point out, can professors.

But the idea has a history, and it has a great deal to do with gender. When the term first emerged, it referred to a place suffused with literal toxins: cancer-causing chemicals, say, or infectious microbes, in places like factories, mines, or labs. But adding to its significance was the growing presence of women in the workforce. A 1978 amendment to Title VII barred discrimination against pregnant women, and what might be the first use of “toxic work environment” came in a 1980 law review article about the rights of pregnant women exposed to toxins at work.

“Toxic” first became the metaphor we know today a few years later, and it emerged from nursing—itself, of course, a heavily gendered occupation. Nursing was a massive profession, which for decades made it attractive to social psychologists and occupational health experts hungry for data. Nursing was an intense job, posing serious risks, like stress, injury, fatigue, substance abuse, and burnout. Research with nurses informed inquiry into the same problems for other professions. Thus, the baseline for voluminous workforce studies came from data on women.

Nurses’ work environments were also prototypically toxic, not only in the literal sense but also in the metaphorical sense: they often featured top-down decision making, low morale, sexual harassment, unequal pay, and job insecurity. A 1989 guide to leadership in nursing counterposed toxic work environments against “nourishing” ones. The former included poorly articulated goals, a winner-take-all approach to conflicts, and a “one right way” attitude toward completing tasks. At the other pole, nourishing work environments required “clear and shared” values, well-defined roles, “active listening,” and assertive communication.

This might sound familiar from departmental reviews, self-help articles, blog posts, and social media. But it’s important to remember how very gendered the idea was at first, and not necessarily in the most progressive way. Because experts were concerned with such a highly feminized profession, initial thinking about workplace toxicity took stereotypically feminine traits for granted, even as it criticized them. The gender ideology female nurses were socialized to accept (and that they were expected to exhibit on the job) could cut both ways: the femininity nurses understood contributed to good working conditions, said the writers, but it also undermined them.

The assumption in the 1989 manual, which was written by women, was that nurses had to suppress some feminine traits and elevate others—or borrow from stereotypically masculine traits—to be good leaders. Nurses “often believe myths about assertiveness,” such as those that “consider the assertive person to be self-centered, unfeminine, overly ambitious, or self-serving[.]” A nourishing work environment, despite the maternal name, wasn’t purely feminine. Instead, a “balance of androgyny is essential . . . because it allows a person to be a leader who is direct and honest, to express feelings, and to deal with conflict while remaining nurturing and loving.” It was a difficult needle for women leaders to thread, the authors admitted.

This genealogy, as academics would call it, hints that the leadership required to create work environments that aren’t toxic (whether they’re called nourishing, collaborative, or something else) might still rely on binary gender ideology, with that mid-spectrum androgyny hard to come by for leaders of any gender. Because of that history, the burden of implementing change may fall unevenly in a given workplace culture, on women or feminine people in particular, no matter the gender of the person in charge, and no matter how much things have changed in the decades since toxic work environments were first described.


Allison Miller is editor of Perspectives. She tweets @Cliopticon.


Tags: From the Editor Women, Gender, Sexuality


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