Toxic workplaces: Women are more likely than men to say they face a disrespectful or abusive work culture

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Female employees are more likely to face a “toxic culture” in the workplace. 

That’s according to new research by the MIT Sloan Management Review, a research-based magazine and digital platform published at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Women were 41% more likely than men to experience a workplace culture that is disrespectful, non-inclusive, unethical, cut-throat or abusive from 2020 to 2021. From 2016 to 2021, only 35% women were more likely to mention toxic culture negatively in their job reviews.

The researchers looked at 600,000 employee reviews of their place of work on the careers website Glassdoor written by approximately 3 million U.S. employees from 2016 to 2021. From the self-reported data, 51% of respondents identified themselves as male and another 49% as female. 

The study analyzed the language of reviews, and categorized the reviews into nearly 200 topics and two dozen themes related to corporate culture and other aspects that shape employees’ experience, such as compensation and benefits, leadership and job security. 

One major takeaway: Toxic culture was the largest “culture gap” between men and women. In fact, women were 2.8 times more likely than men to speak negatively about sexual bias, discrimination, or gender-related exclusion in the workplace. 

“For many women, the gender gap in toxic culture may have an even more profound impact on their day-to-day experience in the workforce,” said Donald Sull, lead author of the study, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and cofounder of CultureX, a company that uses AI to measure and improve corporate culture. 

‘If an Equal Culture Day existed, based on the additional days of toxic culture that women suffer, it would occur on May 30 — more than two months after Equal Pay Day.’

— Donald Sull, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management

“If an Equal Culture Day existed, based on the additional days of toxic culture that women suffer, it would occur on May 30 — more than two months after Equal Pay Day,” Sull said in a statement. (Equal Pay Day, a day to promote equal pay for men and women, falls on March 14.)

One theory: women are more heavily represented in industries where all workers experience high levels of toxicity, such as nursing, social work, early education, health and beauty, the authors said. Women may also be more outspoken about how tolerant and inclusive (or not) their workplaces are, they added. 

Among the different aspects of the toxic culture, women are more likely to mention disrespectful leaders, the lack of gender equity, the lack of equity for disabled employees, leaders who do not promote diversity, equity and inclusivity, and leaders who are unfair. 

The top five jobs reporting the most toxic culture were chefs, civil engineers, electrical engineers technical engineers and eye-care professionals. These professions are more likely to skew male, the authors added.

And the gender gap does not diminish with seniority on the job. Women in self-reported C-level roles were 53% more likely than their male peers to experience toxicity, higher than the average across industries. 

Workplace culture and compensation has been one of the driving factors in female employees leaving their jobs or companies, studies have found. At the same time, female executives are swapping jobs at a historically high level, according to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2022 report. Another report by data company Leopard Solutions found that many women left jobs in the legal field partly due to the work culture at their company, and lack of support from management. 

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