“Calm down. You’re so sensitive. Where’s your sense of humor? You’re crazy!”
If you’re a woman, in all probability, you’ve heard it before.
Psychologists refer to this as ‘gaslighting’ – silencing techniques used to shut you down after you have addressed someone else’s behavior. In that moment, the speaker is making a judgment about how you should feel.
Gaslighting is when one person systemically confuses the other person into thinking their reactions are crazy, to the point where they actually question their sanity. The term is not very mainstream as it originated from the 1940’s film Gas Light, where a husband manipulates his wife into thinking she is crazy.
While gaslighting is not a universal truth for all women, there are plenty of women who unknowingly encounter it at home, in personal relationships and especially at work.
Sbusi Dlamini, HR Business Partner for ShowMax in Johannesburg, says gaslighting commonly manifests in the workplace when there is a power imbalance, such as a manager and his/her assistant. It starts with simple acts such as withholding key information like dates or details of a project, lying about instructions given or not providing the necessary support when in a position to do so.
For instance, if a woman raises valid concerns at work, she is considered to be whining or moody. If she is insulted and her feelings are hurt, it’s her fault for not having a sense of humor. In both these scenarios, the woman is to blame and both parties are conditioned into believing that women’s opinions don’t hold as much weight as men’s, and what women have to say and what they feel aren’t as legitimate.
“It is malicious because it plays on your worst fears and desire to be understood,” says Dlamini.
Dlamini points out that gaslighting is not exclusive to submissive, introverted women, but confident, assertive women with power are also vulnerable to it.
“Women are traditionally labeled as too sensitive or over-emotional, so they are more susceptible to gaslighting in various roles and industries.”
An example of this is the infamous ‘Google Memo’ written by a now former Google engineer, James Damore. He wrote that women are not suited for certain jobs because of their genetic make up, and the gender gaps at work are not due to discrimination, but inherent biological differences between men and women.
Such gender stereotypes are harmful to women because spending your days working with a colleague who believes you were born incapable of being good at your job can eventually lead you ask yourself: “What am I doing here?”
Dlamini also believes that in addition to gender, race plays a role in the reality of women in corporate Africa.
“People of color, women in particular, are historically taught to be submissive and this undeniably follows them into the workplace. As a result of this, they find themselves submitting to those in power in order to progress, thus allowing abusive behavior,” she says.
Dlamini says the first step in dealing with gaslighters is to detach yourself so you can distinguish between the world of the gaslighter and the real world.
“It’s important to remember that gaslighting only works when you believe what the other person says,” she adds.
In her experience, she advises victims to keep a written record in case they should doubt their memory. Bringing in a third party can also help keep track of what transpires, as well as reporting the case to human resources.
Women deserve the equal, unbiased opportunity to prosper in the workplace without abusive mind games that perpetuate discrimination.
“Once you are aware of it, the hard part is over and you can work to mentally overcome it,” she says.
– Written by Cadine Pillay