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Can Empowerment Turn Toxic? Unpacking the Dynamics of Women's Groups

Women empowerment groups

In the pursuit of gender equality and social justice, women's empowerment has emerged as a powerful force for change, offering a platform for women to reclaim women’s voices, challenge systemic inequalities, and support one another in their journey towards self-actualization. Central to this movement are women's groups—spaces that promise camaraderie, understanding, and collective action. Yet, within the seemingly harmonious confines of these groups, a darker reality often lurks—a reality of toxicity that can poison relationships, stifle progress, and undermine the very essence of empowerment.

The concept of toxicity within women's groups is complex and multifaceted, encompassing a range of behaviors and dynamics that erode trust, sow discord, and perpetuate harm. From subtle acts of exclusion to overt displays of aggression, toxicity can take on myriad forms, each with its own insidious impact on the group dynamic. It thrives on power imbalances, unresolved conflicts, and societal pressures that dictate how women should relate to one another.

Toxicity within women's groups is not merely a product of individual shortcomings but is deeply rooted in the social and cultural structures that shape our interactions and identities. Patriarchal norms that pit women against each other, societal expectations of perfection and competition, and the internalization of oppressive ideologies all contribute to the toxic brew that simmers beneath the surface of empowerment.

As we embark on this journey to unpack the dynamics of toxicity within women's groups, it is essential to approach the topic with both curiosity and compassion. We must be willing to confront uncomfortable truths, challenge our assumptions, and interrogate the power dynamics that govern our interactions. Only by shining a light on the shadows can we hope to create spaces of genuine empowerment—spaces where women can thrive, support one another, and collectively dismantle the structures of oppression that seek to divide us.

Understanding Toxicity in Women's Groups

Toxicity within women's groups is a phenomenon that transcends mere interpersonal conflicts; it is a manifestation of deeply ingrained power dynamics, societal pressures, and systemic inequalities. At its core, toxicity reflects the ways in which women navigate their identities, relationships, and aspirations within a patriarchal framework that often pits them against each other.

One of the most insidious aspects of toxicity is its ability to masquerade as camaraderie or concern, disguising manipulation and control as acts of solidarity. In these instances, toxic behaviors are often cloaked in language of "sisterhood" or "support," obscuring the underlying power imbalances and perpetuating harmful dynamics.

Toxicity within women's groups can also be perpetuated by internalized misogyny—the internalization of beliefs and attitudes that lead women to devalue themselves and others. This internalized oppression can manifest in behaviors such as policing of other women's bodies and choices, perpetuating harmful stereotypes, or undermining the achievements of fellow group members.

Moreover, the intersectionality of identity adds layers of complexity to toxic dynamics within women's groups. Women from marginalized communities—such as Black, Indigenous, and women of color; LGBTQ+ individuals; and women with disabilities—often face compounded forms of discrimination and exclusion within both societies at large and within these spaces. As a result, toxic behaviors within women's groups can exacerbate existing inequalities and further marginalize individuals.

Furthermore, the pressure to conform to narrow standards of femininity and success can create a culture of competition and comparison within women's groups, where individuals are pitted against each other in a race for validation and acceptance. This culture of perfectionism and judgment can breed insecurity, resentment, and ultimately, toxicity.

Toxicity within women's groups is a reflection of the broader societal structures that govern our lives—a reminder that even in spaces intended for empowerment and solidarity, the insidious influence of systemic oppression persists. To truly address the potential harm, we must confront these larger forces, challenge our own biases and assumptions, and work towards creating environments that foster genuine empowerment, inclusivity, and collective liberation.

Women Toxic groups

Identifying a Toxic Women's Empowerment Group

Recognizing toxicity requires a nuanced understanding of group dynamics, interpersonal relationships, and the subtle manifestations of harmful behaviors. While toxicity may not always be immediately apparent, there are several key indicators that can help individuals identify when a group environment has become harmful.

  1. Dominance of Certain Voices: Pay close attention to the dynamics of communication within the group. If certain members consistently dominate conversations, monopolize decision-making processes, or dismiss the contributions of others, it may signal a toxic imbalance of power. In healthy group dynamics, all voices are valued and respected, and decisions are made collaboratively rather than unilaterally by a select few.

  2. Cliques and Exclusion: Take note of social dynamics within the group, including the formation of cliques or exclusive social circles. If certain members consistently isolate themselves from others or engage in behaviors that exclude or marginalize certain individuals, it may indicate a toxic culture of exclusion and favoritism. In inclusive and supportive environments, all members feel welcomed and included, regardless of social status or personal connections.

  3. Gossip and Backbiting: Be wary of gossip, rumors, and negative talk circulating within the group. Toxic environments often thrive on drama and negativity, with members engaging in gossip and backbiting to undermine others and assert social dominance. In healthy group dynamics, communication is characterized by openness, honesty, and mutual respect, with conflicts addressed directly and constructively rather than through gossip and manipulation.

  4. Lack of Accountability: Notice how members of the group respond to feedback, criticism, or accountability measures. In toxic environments, individuals may deflect blame, make excuses, or refuse to take responsibility for their actions, leading to a culture of impunity and irresponsibility. In contrast, healthy groups foster a culture of accountability, where members hold themselves and each other to high standards of integrity and conduct.

  5. Emotional Manipulation: Pay attention to subtle forms of emotional manipulation or coercion within the group. This may include guilt-tripping, gaslighting, or emotional blackmail, where individuals use their emotions to manipulate others and maintain control over the group dynamic. In healthy group dynamics, members communicate openly and honestly, without resorting to manipulative tactics to achieve their goals.

What to Do if You Suspect Toxicity

Navigating a toxic women's empowerment group can be challenging, but there are steps individuals can take to address the issue and protect their well-being.

  1. Trust Your Instincts: If you sense that something is off or uncomfortable within the group, trust your intuition. Don't dismiss your feelings or rationalize toxic behavior—acknowledge them and take them seriously. Your instincts are often a reliable guide in recognizing harmful dynamics.

  2. Communicate Openly: Initiate honest and respectful conversations with group members about your concerns. Choose a private setting where you can express yourself openly without fear of judgment or retaliation. Be specific about the behaviors or patterns you've observed and how they've impacted you. Approach the discussion with empathy and understanding, acknowledging that everyone's experiences and perspectives are valid.

  3. Set Boundaries: Establish clear boundaries for yourself within the group and assertively communicate them to others. This may include boundaries around communication, participation, or personal space. Boundaries are essential for protecting your emotional well-being and maintaining healthy relationships. Be firm in upholding your boundaries, even if it means distancing yourself from toxic individuals or situations.

  4. Seek Support Outside the Group: If efforts to address toxicity within the group prove ineffective, seek support from trusted friends, family members, coach, or mental health professionals. Having a supportive network outside the group can provide validation, perspective, and guidance as you navigate challenging dynamics. Don't hesitate to reach out for help if you need it—your well-being is paramount.

  5. Advocate for Change: If you believe that the toxicity within the group is systemic or structural, consider advocating for change at a broader level. This may involve organizing discussions, workshops, or trainings on topics such as conflict resolution, communication skills, or diversity and inclusion. By addressing root causes and implementing proactive measures, you can create a more supportive and inclusive environment for all members.

  6. Consider Leaving the Group: Ultimately, if the toxicity within the group persists despite your efforts to address it, consider removing yourself from the situation. Your mental and emotional health should always take precedence, and it's okay to walk away from toxic environments that undermine your well-being. Remember that leaving the group is not a sign of weakness but rather a courageous act of self-preservation.

Women's empowerment groups hold immense potential to foster solidarity, growth, and collective action. However, when toxicity infiltrates these spaces, it undermines their intended purpose and perpetuates harm. By understanding the dynamics of toxicity, recognizing warning signs, and taking proactive steps to address and mitigate its effects, we can create healthier, more inclusive environments for women's empowerment. Let us commit to fostering spaces where all women feel valued, supported, and empowered to thrive, free from the shadow of toxicity.

Maria Dowling, Psy.D. MS, MBA, CPC

Strategy Consultant-Speaker-Business Coach

MD Consulting Company

Dr. Maria Dowling is a strategy consultant and certified professional coach with experience in neuroscience, psychology, leadership development, and business consulting. Her area of specialization encompasses the human dimension of operations, organizational culture and leadership development. Dr. Maria is also a keynote speaker and transformational trainer; working with individuals and organizations to provide quality and engaging workshops & seminars.


This blog article is intended for information only. Please note that some of the content may have been created by AI and it is not intended to substitute for professional advice in psychological, legal, or business matters. The information shared might not always be completely accurate or up to date due to the evolving nature of the topics discussed. Readers are encouraged to seek the advice of qualified professionals for personalized guidance and to verify any information before making decisions based on the content provided herein.  


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