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Fragile masculinity at work: 4 experts break down why men may ‘lie, cheat and steal’ if they feel their manliness is threatened in the workplace and how to fix it

By Catalina Goanta,The Conversation,


Men are already reframing what healthy masculinity looks like in the workplace.

Men who believe they are viewed as less manly than their peers—or feel that their masculinity is compromised—are more likely to mistreat their coworkers, lie for personal gain or steal from their employers in order to make themselves feel better, according to new research published in the Harvard Business Review.

On the other hand, the research also found that women are far less precious about their femininity and didn’t engage in harmful behaviors even if they were unhappy with the way they were being treated.

The study was conducted by Maryam Kouchaki, Keith Leavitt, Luke Zhu and Anthony C. Klotz, who surveyed 500 working adults in the U.S. and China to see what their reactions were to failing to live up to gendered stereotypes, being compared negatively to others with respect to these traits, or holding a job traditionally viewed as masculine or feminine.

On top of this, they gathered intelligence from men working for female bosses.

The authors found that men “often” perceived these situations as a threat to their masculinity and so began engaging in harmful behavior.

In addition, men viewed threats to their masculinity as an attack on their autonomy and so were prepared to engage in rule-breaking and toxic behavior to get it back.

Why are working men so tied to the idea of masculinity?

Julia Yates is an associate professor at the University of London and teaches in its organizational psychology program.

She outlined that masculinity is directly linked to a man’s economic outlook—from an evolutionary standpoint, men have always been framed as the ‘hunters’ and in more modern spheres, the ‘breadwinners’.

Drawing from Raewyn Connell’s gender order theory, she explained: “Connell’s theory is that things that are ‘masculine’—be it traits or hobby or behavior—are superior.

“Women are seen as inferior in that hierarchy and so when men are being asked to report to women they’re saying to themselves: ‘I know I’m capable so why am I being asked to report to a woman?'”

“These perceived masculine traits are also the things we often value in a workplace: confidence, passion, power. And when we see a woman with these masculine traits there can be some cognitive dissonance. It can be troubling for people—and that may not even be conscious.”

She added that two studies she is working on look at men in female-dominated sectors and vice versa, saying: “What’s interesting is though they’re conscious of the tension, people built narratives around why.

“Women say they notice things like all their male colleagues going to the pub but although she doesn’t get invited, it’s not because she’s a woman. Men in positions of power in sectors like healthcare say: ‘Yes I am in a management position and other men get promoted because of their gender—but I’m here on merit.’ We make up these stories for ourselves to resolve the dissonance.

“When we’ve got men doing things like stealing company property they may build themselves this rationale around why they’ve done that—be it they were undervalued or underpaid or whatever it might be.”

How should conversations around gender equality at work be handled?

In the corporate world, men for decades have been expected to be “cheerleaders” for their female peers. However, they often do not understand what that entails or how to get involved, and worry that they’ll get it wrong.

That’s according to Sandra Ondraschek-Norris, VP of Global Men Advocating Real Change (MARC) Learning, and Jose Romero, director of MARC alumni at global nonprofit Catalyst.

Ondraschek-Norris said: “You cannot and you will not ever solve gender equity if you don’t fully engage men. You can’t fully engage men without understanding masculinity and the impact of gender norms on men.

“Men have a responsibility to be fully involved as leaders and partners but there’s a huge opportunity for them too. Masculinity can be harmful to men—the workplace isn’t working for them either.

“The first step is to unpack masculinity and acknowledge masculine anxiety—we have to bring men into the conversation sooner and in a way that’s safer and is more balanced.”

Catalyst’s Engaging Men research, which has been going on for more than 10 years, has found three main barriers to male involvement in equality: apathy (74%), fear (74%) and ignorance (51%).

Romero added that he himself has felt fear that he might say the wrong thing in the past or felt somewhat excluded from the conversation.

He explained: “I wanted to genuinely learn from women and learn what I could do to contribute as a man. The other tension I see is that many men still feel this notion of masculinity—to be aggressive and super competitive—when there are so many ways of being masculine.

“Across cultures and ages, men feel they want to be vulnerable and show emotions at work but feel in organizational contexts their culture doesn’t allow them to be themselves. They need to wear a mask at work.”

Harness the power of peer pressure

As well as having one-on-one conversations with peers about their behavior in the workplace, peer pressure can be a force for good as well as evil, Romero said.

In a negative context, he explained, peer pressure can mean men feel they need to laugh at an inappropriate joke when all others do.

But in an “equity and inclusion context,” men can exercise positive peer pressure and interrupt the comment in an attempt to make the group reflect through dialogue and help change behavior.

“We could interrupt it by saying something like: ‘Was that really you? I know you and don’t think what you just said reflects who you are,'” Romero said.

How do you practice positive masculinity?

Redefining masculinity is already being done by droves of men across the U.S. Not only are men examining how they want to behave moving forward but are also evaluating where their conceptions of manliness come from.

“The vast majority of men were never taught emotional literacy. The unhealthy stuff is largely due to men unconsciously or consciously adhering to an outdated playbook of what it is to be a man,” said author Ray Arata, who writes about men becoming allies to women in the workplace.

Men are often “afraid” of joining in on conversations around gender equality lest they make a misstep, Arata says: “What I deal with is men asking: ‘What do I do?’ The real question is to ask: ‘How do I be?'” he said.

“There’s a choice point: are men willing to shape up and ask themselves what kind of leader or team member do they want to be? They can stand in their ability or their fragility…

“We’ve got to put our energy towards redefining healthy masculinity—that’s where we need to go.”

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