Masculinity in the Workplace

New research from the Harvard Business Review finds that toxic masculinity in the workplace hinders women and men, and it undermines the bottom line. Offices with masculinity contest cultures endorse “winner-take-all competition, where winners demonstrate stereotypically masculine traits such as emotional toughness, physical stamina, and ruthlessness.”

If your workplace has a culture where your colleagues take no accountability, show no vulnerability, keep score about who works the most hours in a day/week, let no obligation interfere with work, and sanction internal competition, then you might be working in an environment with a masculinity contest culture. These environments are most common in male-dominated industries, such as finance and tech start-ups. 

While it’s mostly men who create and perpetuate this workplace culture, women seeking career advancement often reluctantly join in—partaking in masculinity contest culture themselves to prove to their typically male executives that they’re in it to win.

Masculinity contest culture exhausts employees and reduces profitability. In these environments, employees suffer from depression, low psychological safety, lack of work/life balance, gender discrimination, sexual harassment, all of which lead to higher rates of turnover. Masculinity contest culture hurts everyone because “feminine” values such as caretaking and work/life balance are discouraged. According to leadership expert Jennifer Berdahl, “Men were saying they did not feel like they were ‘man enough’ if they took care of their kids or left work early to go to the doctor, or showed other physical signs of ‘non-manhood,’ like long hair or wearing an earring.”

Pixar released a charming new video showing how everyone loses in masculinity contest culture.

Take Action! If you work in an organization with masculinity contest culture, take the following actions to change it:

  1. Name the problem (masculinity contest culture).
  2. Accurately frame the problem as “making things better for everyone” rather than “making things better for women and people of color.”
  3. Implement interventions and trainings as part of the organization’s core mission.  
  4. Create a space where employees can raise questions and concerns without facing ridicule.
  5. Establish incentives for engaging in workplace behavior that rejects masculinity contest culture; and
  6. Provide protection against retaliation for people who are critical of masculinity contest culture.