What I Learnt From Working in a Toxic Male Workplace

Content warning: this article makes reference to sexual assault

I’ll always remember landing my first office job as a milestone moment in both my career and my personal life. Up until that point, like most other teens, I’d spent the past four years ‘character building’ my way through part time work with verbal abuse on ten dollars an hour in hospitality.

It was early 2017, and the degree I was studying encouraged students to undertake unpaid internships as a means of gaining field experience. I first interned at a commercial real-estate-meets-tech-startup, and was then offered my first office job. 

Unfortunately, like many unpaid media internships, it was one of exploitation. There was no “supervisor” to train me or teach me anything related to my courses of media or marketing; instead I spent my days at the internship googling “SEO”, “how to grow social profiles” and “content creation for B2C companies”. The man I was supposedly reported to, would only ask me the same thing everyday, which was a sarcastic, “do we have a million followers yet?” 

That was the extent of my ‘mentorship’.

I should have walked away right then and there. But I was good at what I was doing, and so the company soon offered to pay me.

Instead of noticing the red flags, I was too focused on the fact that I would finally be earning an hourly rate that was higher than my age at the time; and I was also overjoyed to be out of the service industry, and be able to sit down at work, wear whatever I wanted (sans uniform and name badge), and more importantly, be able to apply the skills I was learning in my university course in a hands-on environment.

At the time, there were seven others working there. All bar one, we were paid as contractors with our own Australian Business Numbers (ABNs), rather than as employees with sick leave, annual leave, and superannuation contributions from our employer. 

I’ve since met others who also worked for companies with less than 10 people, yet whose employers paid them properly as employees, and entitled them to benefits such as sick leave.

I’ve also since realised that I was exploited, particularly when the company grew to over 20 workers, and they still did not want to pay us as employees, but also denied us any of the benefits that sole traders have, such as flexible hours, working remotely, or taking time off.

To clarify, as a sole trader (which I currently am), I choose when I work. As nobody “employs” me, I’m freelancing. I don’t report to a manager, I report to my client. Therefore, if I need to take a sick day, of course I don’t get paid for it, because I’m technically self-employed.

The issue was that at this particular company, if we dared call in sick, we were given the third degree, accused of lying, or scrutinised (including being timed how long we spent in the bathroom on a work day and then being questioned about it), despite the fact that as contractors, if we didn’t work, we didn’t get paid. So it seems hardly fair to question us taking time off, when we weren’t getting paid for taking said time off.

Now, let’s get into the toxic masculinity. There were two men at the company who actually made inappropriate comments towards me and the other women who later worked there. However, the fact that the 9+ other men witnessed it and said nothing created a workplace shrouded by a culture of toxic masculinity – a ‘boys’ club’, which has roots to the very core of the founders of the company.

It’s since come out that a long-time good friend of the company founders (and “the boss*”) has been convicted of raping four women, one of whom was raped and tattooed without her consent whilst drugged. Yep, the same guy who, when I worked for the company, the boss bragged about being buddies with.

*“The boss” is what I will be referring to the main perpetrator of the toxic culture as. He is one of the co-founders and is the current CTO of the company. He was who we reported to, so he was our “boss”

One time, during a weekly team meeting, a male coworker regaled us with a story about how he had spent his Saturday night upskirting and ogling women, despite the fact that he was married. 

When I openly rolled my eyes during the meeting, too scared to call him out on it, the boss then made me the butt of his joke, saying “everyone look at her! She’s rolling her eyes, how funny is her reaction!”. I obviously regret not having the balls to speak up there and then. But as the only female in a room full of much older men, and as a junior in the office, I felt that it wasn’t my place to stand up for myself and my beliefs. Which is just wrong on so many levels.

Another time, the boss (and I cringe every time I use this word — because as I explained above, he wasn’t legally my employer) told a new female intern (we had three ladies in the office at this point in time) that her yellow dress was ‘…interesting’. No context.

Just, “Good morning, that’s an … interesting dress.” And I use the ellipses because he paused for effect, looked her up and down, then said it.

This may seem minor, but when you combine it with the personality traits of a man who behaves like a toddler (cue slamming doors and objects on desks if he was in a bad mood; leering at you and laughing inappropriately at your serious work-related suggestions if he was in a good mood) it made for an uncomfortable work environment to say the least. 

As for the continuation of the boys’ club atmosphere, there came a time when I was asked to train a (male) intern.

When the boss would call us both into his office, all of the intern’s suggestions were met with enthusiasm, because that boy knew how to dress and act just like his superiors — with an air of arrogance, subtle misogyny, and complete confidence to behave however he wanted, because like most white men, he had been doing so for his entire life without judgement or consequence.

On the contrary, my suggestions (nevermind the fact that I was the intern’s senior and actually did possess more marketing knowledge and experience than him), were dismissed by the boss as “a waste of time”. 

For the duration of this guy’s internship (which was paid, by the way – ha, we love double standards!), the boss was constantly telling me how “he wants your job!” and that I should feel threatened by the intern because of that. 

To sum up a very long story, and gloss over a workplace experience that has left me with some deep-seated insecurities about how I portray myself in a workplace setting, I’m going to detail a few key moments towards the end of my time at the company, to really illustrate just how bad things were getting. These events also catapulted me into the decision that I had to leave this workplace as soon as possible, even if it meant being unemployed.

  1. Firstly, I found out that there was no method or madness to how much each person was being paid. As a junior, my hourly rate was higher than that of senior web developers, purely because they were hired on student visas.
  2. The level of tension and overall office environment was getting unbearably uncomfortable. Microaggressions (racially, towards those on the student visas), as well as towards us (the boss physically letting out his aggression passive aggressively in the way of slamming objects down on our tables and leaving conversations mid-sentence) were becoming a several-times-daily occurrence. 
  3. Most importantly (I mean, less important than my mental health, but still) I wasn’t learning anything in the job. We’d just hired another unpaid intern, who was going to be my assistant, but as someone who only worked part time in scheduling Instagram posts and doing the odd copywriting, there wasn’t actually anything for me (or them) to do. I was not learning anything from anyone in the company, I was not being challenged by my job, and I wasn’t motivated to do my job.

Eventually, an opportunity came up and I knew there and then that even if I didn’t get this new job I’d just applied for, I would leave this toxic workplace for the sake of my sanity.

What I have learnt, since working in a similar field, also exclusively with men, is that the way I was treated in this office both as a worker and as a person was not okay.

It is not okay to time how long your (female) staff take in the bathroom, and then question why they took so long.

It is not okay to slam down random objects onto your staff members’ desks for no good reason.

It is not okay to slam doors if a meeting went badly.

It is not okay to make inappropriate comments about what your female staff are wearing.

It is not okay to walk away mid-conversation after asking “How was your weekend?” to a staff member, simply because you feel obliged to ask but you actually don’t give two shits about them.

It is not okay to accuse your staff of lying when they’re calling in sick.

It is not okay to pay senior staff less than juniors just because English is their second language.

And above all, it’s not okay to stay in a toxic workplace because you feel you have no other option. You will find another source of income, and you will find people who treat you properly and professionally. 

The take home message here is simple — do what I wish I’d done much sooner: speak up when something is wrong (even if you’re scared!), know when to leave when things aren’t right, and if you can’t do the first two, then at least know what you’re experiencing is not okay, and that not all workplaces are like this. 

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