The idea that “masculine identity” is a social construct is not a new one. As Robin Ely, Professor of Business Administration and Senior Associate Dean for Culture and Community, points out, different cultures associate different attributes with men and masculinity, but in almost all cultures, such attributes—whatever they may be—are more highly valued than those associated with women and femininity.
Ely’s recent study, a collaboration with her colleague, Stanford University consulting professor Debra Meyerson, proves without a shadow of a doubt that an entire culture can dramatically shift when stripped of its traditional masculine identity.
“Unmasking Manly Men: The Organizational Reconstruction of Men’s Identity” took Ely and Meyerson 130 miles off the coast of Southern Louisiana, landing them smack-dab in the middle of one of the toughest, most male-dominated work environments imaginable: an offshore oil platform. The manager of the oil rig had implemented innovative approaches to leadership development in order to reduce unsafe behaviors stereotypically associated with “macho” men, such as taking unnecessary risks, refusing to ask questions that make them appear vulnerable, and pressuring coworkers to prove themselves through acts of physical bravery. However, he wasn’t achieving an effective result.
He found that by stripping the oil rig away of its traditional masculine identity, there was a noticeable shift in the entire culture of the rig: communication improved, men listened to each other more, they learned from their mistakes, and placed more emphasis on teamwork.
So, what does work on an oil rig have to do with corporate America? The concept of not just pushing against masculine leadership stereotypes, but dismantling them entirely can be transferred to the corporate landscape. This could be necessary if organizations continue conflating concepts of leadership competence with images of masculinity.
Ely says the research speaks to the question of how men construct identities in the workplace and the larger role organizations play in shaping this process. “In other research,” she says, “we have seen that conventional masculinity often becomes the performance standard, even when an alternative standard would be more beneficial to the organization, not to mention to women employees with an interest in career advancement.”
The Challenges of Making the Change
Admittedly, there very few direct parallels between corporate America and oil platforms, but what’s certain is that management can be a positive force for change – if a company’s management is indeed willing to make that change.
According to Ely, in order to make the change, a corporation would need to cultivate a connective purpose — the sense that one’s purpose at work contributes to others. Second, an atmosphere must be cultivated that promises psychological safety, where people are assured that behaving in ways that aren’t stereotypically masculine won’t result in ostracism or punishment. Lastly, through its norms and practices, the organization needs to decouple the concepts of masculinity and competence.
When countless companies across various industries not only accept, but perpetuate masculine leadership stereotypes, what is the cost?
‘Adapt or Get Out’ – One Woman’s Account
If on the oil rig masculine culture created a physically-unsafe environment, it could easily be argued that masculine culture in a professional atmosphere could create an emotionally and psychologically unsafe environment, one where women feel forced to comply with a culture that makes them uncomfortable, or leave entirely.
For one woman working in the very male-dominated tech industry, experiencing gender inequity at work has become quite commonplace. Rosalind* has grown accustomed to both casual and overt sexism, but she has seen other women deeply struggle with situations she now considers normal.
“It’s reached the point where I’m now most comfortable working with men because it’s been a bulk of my experience, even when I started out doing internships. It’s all-male teams in all-male companies. That’s the framework. I am almost always the only woman on a company’s tech team,” Rosalind says.
As the only woman in a company, Rosalind has worked in environments where misogynistic behaviors permeate the workplace. Despite considering herself “one of the guys,” Rosalind has been in situations that were deeply upsetting and demeaning, like when a company president would call her into his office asking her to discuss a specific topic during a meeting, only to tear her apart during the meeting over the topic he privately asked her to discuss, embarrassing her in front of her peers.
“Unfortunately, putting up with this kind of behavior as a woman in the tech industry has become the cost of doing business,” Rosalind says. “Being one of the guys has been beneficial to my career, but just because it’s become normal for me, doesn’t mean other women will find this behavior normal. So many women leave because they can’t take it – and they shouldn’t have to. It’s not that women aren’t interested in science and technology as reports seem to suggest; it’s that they don’t like the constant feeling of being offended and denigrated. We’re training women to adapt or get out.”
Who Do We Hold Accountable?
The trend of training women to adapt or get out is something Jessica Greenwalt, Founder of Pixelkeet, has experienced and played a part in. She volunteers as a teacher and a speaker for several organizations that strive to get more women into STEM careers. According to the Greenwalt, many organizations have adopted the mentality that in order for women to be successful in these fields, they need to behave more like men. Greenwalt says it’s become the norm to train young girls and women to behave like men by holding “bragging” sessions, or by telling them to apply for jobs they do not feel qualified for.
“People like what they can understand, so if you’re entering a male-dominated industry, your male colleagues will be more accepting if you behave like them,” Greenwalt says. “In my experience, women who adopt masculine leadership behaviors can—and often do— become leaders in their organizations. When a woman plays this part well enough, her male co-workers will even ‘forget’ she is a woman and interact with her as if she is ‘one of the guys.’
Once a businesswoman adapts, she enters the inner circle and gets invited to events her male co-workers would never have dared to include her in before. Men become comfortable behaving like themselves around this type of woman and as a result, invite her to work with them on other projects with other teams, expanding her professional opportunities.”
This problem becomes increasingly difficult to unravel when women perpetuate the behavior that reinforces the culture that adversely affects them. So, who should be held accountable: those who perpetuate harmful masculine culture, or the companies that allow it to exist in the first place, rewarding those who reinforce it?
The Impact on Women in the Workplace
When the oil rigs in Ely and Meyerson’s study were stripped of masculine culture, productivity, efficiency, and reliability all increased dramatically, leaving us to wonder about the possibilities of masculine culture-free corporate workplaces. Upholding masculine culture, despite its potentially harmful effects, seems even more egregious when you consider that teams featuring an equal number of women are more productive, efficient, and cost-effective.
Ely says it’s the higher value we place on the attributes conventionally associated with men and masculinity and our association of such attributes with leadership that adversely affect women in the workplace. “Corporations and most workplaces perpetuate the notion of leadership as a masculine role by defining leadership in conventionally masculine terms and promoting mostly men, especially those who appear to embody conventional masculinity into leadership positions,” Ely said.
If corporations do nothing else to change their masculine cultures, Ely suggests organizations bring the lens she and Meyerson offered from their study to their own work cultures.
“Organizations should ask themselves: To what extent do our norms and practices encourage men to prove their manhood, and how does such behavior, in fact, undermine what we are trying to accomplish?” Ely said. “Then and only then, companies need to change their cultures to reinforce behaviors that promote rather than undermine effectiveness and make what they are trying to accomplish so compelling and engaging for their employees that they want to make the shift.”
*Rosalind is a pseudonym