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Dark Triad

Toxic Femininity: Machiavellian Mary in the Workplace

The type of leaders who are hired is critical to a successful business.

"Toxic femininity" refers to women who are hostile to nurturance and cooperation, opting instead for aggression and backstabbing to get ahead. In this regard, the type of leaders and team builders who are hired is critical to a successful business. Certain personality characteristics are associated typically with leaders who are willing to be risk takers, assertive, fighters, and task-oriented. Nurturant is not a typical descriptor of leaders. It suggests a “mothering” approach and evokes images of passivity; that is, being a supporter rather than a leader, and being someone who is focused on relationships rather than tasks. Men who hire women to be leaders may not consider “nurturers” as competent for the role. Therefore, women in business leadership positions, may consciously or unconsciously, shy away from these and other “feminine-centric” images.

A particularly virulent personality leadership type by a woman is one we label “Machiavellian Mary.” This style denotes a superficially agreeable, yet ruthless, self-focused, and false individual. Machiavellian Mary is “mean business.” She kills “buy-in” from key stakeholders—the employees who are the face and backbone of the business. Her authoritarian style poisons the working environment that could otherwise nourish new ideas. Hers is a “top-down” communication style—one that promotes a culture of dishonesty and fear.

Yet, Machiavellian Mary often rises to high-level positions. Why? Because she plays well in the “male” game of pyramidal hierarchies. She knows how to be pleasing to those on top and how to control and step on-and-over those below.

As women professionals, we’ve witnessed this style. Our female colleagues and friends agree that some of the worst bosses they have had were Machiavellian Marys. Many stories are told of how Machiavellian Mary created friction, pitted co-workers against each other, and promoted dissension and an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. These accounts reveal how Machiavellian Mary lowered morale, caused employee strife, damaged productivity, contributed to EEO actions and lawsuits, and jeopardized solvency.

Yet, Machiavellian Marys continue to be prominent in leadership positions of power across sectors. Why? Frankly, they succeed because both men and women believe in the myth of the “Iron Lady” as having the characteristics that are admirable and desirable because they promote the “bottom line.” We may unconsciously assign nurturant styles to the roles of subordinates who are to be led, but not to be the leaders. We may think that women who were able to move up “the leadership ladder” did so because they could be ruthless; or if that term is not palatable, we may soften the adjective to “realistic” or “has a business sense.” Such a woman may be viewed as skillfully playing the game.

Despite gender equality as the overt mantra, the archetypes of strength as masculine and weakness as feminine remain potent today, just as they have in the past. Power impacts our view of others; we respect those with status and assign lower esteem to those without. Historically, men have had more power than women; consequently, women may unconsciously assign more respect to women who lead like men.

In addition, men may be more comfortable with Machiavellian Mary, at least initially. Machiavellian Mary has no problems in promoting herself. On the surface, she can look like she is getting the job done and is not distracted by interpersonal issues, such as being concerned about the needs of others. As she does not have “feminine frills” like a democratic style (e.g., acknowledging teamwork), tasks such as down-sizing, aggressive take-overs, and issuing demotions come easily to her.

Is a nurturing leadership style just a nice theory that plays well in academic journals and sounds good in conferences about transformational leaders? Is it more aspirational than pragmatic? Several years ago, researchers found that biomedical research centers with a nurturing leadership style yielded the most major biomedical discoveries. There are examples in other fields where promoting cooperation rather than competition enhances creativity. Although hiring Machiavellian Mary may look good at first, she will ultimately hamper the true growth and potential of the business.

Cooperation instead of “dog-eat-dog” competition fosters creativity—whether it’s in the form of inventions or new products, original works, scientific contributions, or successful business practices. Machiavellian Mary kills potential. The key to new ideas and growth comes from planting the seed of entrepreneurial altruism. Although there is a much to endorse about healthy competition, we believe that a cooperative spirit of promoting the success of others and encouraging teamwork will stimulate the exponential explosion of phenomenal creativity and productivity, as well as lead to better work environments.

More from Shoba Sreenivasan, Ph.D., and Linda E. Weinberger, Ph.D.
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More from Shoba Sreenivasan, Ph.D., and Linda E. Weinberger, Ph.D.
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