"Masculinity Contests" Destroy Work Cultures. Here's What to Do About It.
In 2015, I fought a man in Madison Square Garden in order to try to understand why men fight. I’d been writing about the global masculinity crisis since 2011, the year I transitioned--and the story back then often framed the “crisis” as an economic one: Men in developed countries around the world were out of work following the Great Recession of 2009 and suicide rates were skyrocketing. But something about that framing just didn’t feel right to me, a “new” man, happy in my body but finding navigating how to world now treated me baffling and troubling in turn.
Within a few short months of taking testosterone, I experienced privilege (I was safe walking alone at night, paid more, promoted more quickly, and could easily silence a meeting just by speaking) as well as all the constraint embedded in the phrase “man up” (I was policed for showing any emotion but anger, nobody but my girlfriend and immediate family touched me, I was not to ask for help, and my natural empathy was treated as a weakness). My mom died in 2014 and, newly privileged but emotionally desolate, I soon found myself performing the exact sort of toxic masculinity that I was chronicling in (white) men the world over. One day, a man and I nearly came to blows outside of my Manhattan apartment over absolutely nothing, and I realized that the only way I could be happy in the male body I’d fought so hard to exist in was by questioning everything about masculinity, including the idea that the “masculinity crisis” was just an economic story.
I realized that the only way I could be happy in the male body I’d fought so hard to exist in was by questioning everything about masculinity
Years later, I can tell you: It isn’t. It is a story about politics, and history, and race, and the environment, and power. And it is also a story about work.
In reporting out my book, Amateur, I had to face some really hard truths about myself, especially on the job. I quickly learned that, even as a trans man, I had blind spots that led to sexist behavior. I had to retrain myself to see that the very tactics that helped me advocate for a seat at the table before my transition—assertiveness, refusing to do emotional labor—were now weaponized qualities that held back the women I worked with. I also tracked my behavior, and noticed that I responded more quickly to the emails of my male colleagues, and that I was more likely to talk over women than men. Despite not transitioning until I was in my 30s, I had internalized what sociologists call “the man box.” Colloquially known as “toxic masculinity,” this set of widely socialized behaviors rewards boys and men for dominance, not showing emotionality (besides anger), not asking for help, and taking excessive risks.
Just as the broader “masculinity crisis” was actually a story about socialized masculinity, a paper published in the Harvard Business Review last month names what many women, trans people of all genders, and people of color know to be true: Masculinity contest culture is a pervasive organizing system for companies across sectors. These cultures kill innovation, collaboration, and diversity initiatives; increase burnout and turnover; and limit the potential and safety of all bodies.
And, for traditionally male-dominated and high-stakes sectors like tech, male contest cultures are both more likely and extra-terrible for business, given the reliance on collaboration, creativity, and constant innovation. So, what is it, and how can leaders stop it?
[Masculinity contest] cultures kill innovation, collaboration, and diversity initiatives; increase burnout and turnover; and limit the potential and safety of all bodies.
What is a masculinity contest culture?
Stanford sociologist Marianne Cooper, a co-author of the HBR paper, defines it as a “hyper-competitive” Game of Thrones-type environment, where work comes first, winner takes all, and “physicality is prized”—even if “strength” in this context equates to sustaining incredibly long hours. “The other identifying feature,” she says, “is very low trust, and not feeling safe at all.”
And not feeling safe, per Caroline Simard, managing director of Stanford’s VMware Women's Leadership Innovation Lab, is the death knell of innovation. In fact, innovation comes from psychological safety, which in turn comes from fostering the exact opposite of masculinity contest culture, especially by embracing “not-knowing.” “A lot of men are socialized to never show weakness, never admit that they don’t know, and a lot of work cultures reinforce that,” Simard says. “If you can never not-know then you’ll hide information. You’ll hide failures; you’ll start avoiding risk.”
In an era where masculinity contest culture is fully visible at the highest levels of our broader culture, it’s not surprising that it comes to work with us, too. And it’s called “toxic” for a reason. “If you needed to be tough, to show people that you can dominate them, what would you do?” Cooper asks. “You might yell at people in meetings and publicly humiliate them. You might try to sabotage your colleague. Or you might sexually harass women, or other men, to show them who's boss.”
And this behavior isn’t just about gender. It’s also about race, Cooper says. “Masculinity contests among men is really a way of reinforcing racial hierarchies and racial inequalities.” Even in masculinity contest cultures that employ women and people of color in positions of power, the same behavior is treated differently if they’re the ones doing it. “If we’re all in a contest, and the key weapons of the contest are anger or self-promotion,” Cooper says, “Women can't really just be angry and self-promote. They're going to get pushback. Same for men of color.” Even if you “play the game,” the rewards are different—with women and people of color relegated to “supporting roles,” just as they are outside of the workplace.
Innovation comes from psychological safety, which in turn comes from fostering the exact opposite of masculinity contest culture, especially by embracing “not-knowing.”
That sounds terrible! What can I do about it?
“Leaders have a unique role to play in shifting culture,” Simard says. And it starts with looking at the organization’s mission and values. “If organizations say collaboration is a core value, and then what you have is a lot of people throwing each other under the bus, that can be a way into the conversation,” she says. “As opposed to pointing the finger at everyone’s problematic behavior, grounding in the organization’s mission can really open the conversation up.”
While Simard acknowledges that most managers can’t change key organizational values, they can, she says, leverage them in meaningful questions for their teams, like: “Are we really living up to our values?” and “What are the values that are not actually creating the kind of inclusive and innovative culture that we want?”
The next step, Simard says, is “to really spend as much time on how we’re going to work together, and the process of collaboration, as what we’re going to cover.” She cites a lab director who made a giant poster of norms (“We leave status at the door,” “We’re respectful at all times”) and simply pointed at it when someone violated a rule as a way to undermine the toxic dominance behaviors that define contest cultures.
New norms clarify the truth: Most of us don’t actually enjoy contest culture. Coopers says her group’s research found that “most people think that the people they work with endorse these behaviors more than they do.” Just as the “bystander effect” exacerbates prejudice because the silent person who doesn’t intervene ends up tacitly agreeing to prejudice, when “no one speaks out against bad behavior, it’s because they think everybody else endorses it.” The truth is, Cooper says, more people are uncomfortable than it might appear.
Articulating new norms can be challenging, especially for managers who may, Simard says, have a blind spot around their own power. “Leaders need to work extra hard to create the sense that it’s safe to contribute,” she says. “Sometimes it’s as easy as putting yourself last on the agenda, so I don’t have the whole meeting of people nodding along with me, or thinking their idea was bad, because I said something different. Sometimes it can be providing different ways of contributing ideas that don’t always rely on the person that speaks the best English or is the most comfortable with public speaking.”
Simard suggests crowdsourcing ideas from other managers, and also from the people on your teams. “What do you need to feel included?” is a question any manager can ask. The answers might surprise you.
Back when I was learning to box and first owning up to my biases at work, I spoke to Simard and she suggested I do something similar: In order to change my own internal biases, she suggested I look at my sexist behavior dead-on, and do exactly what I wasn’t “supposed” to do as a man at work. I decided to embrace the social conditioning I’d had before my transition, integrating vulnerability and humility into my managerial style, and to try to eradicate power plays and status wherever possible in workplace dynamics.
I began to ask for feedback from my team and coworkers, to change meeting structures so I spoke last, to relieve my female coworkers of “emotional labor” in a mindful way, and to listen more and talk less in meetings. As much as I still have to learn, it was shocking, and humbling, to see how easy it was to make others feel safe—as soon as I dropped the mantle of having to “prove” my masculinity to anyone.
As much as I still have to learn, it was shocking, and humbling, to see how easy it was to make others feel safe—as soon as I dropped the mantle of having to “prove” my masculinity to anyone.
Reimagining men at work
And that’s the rub. Masculinity contest culture is an ingrained social problem, and parachuting into workplaces with diversity solutions is unlikely to resolve structural sexism or racism. But, Cooper says, simply understanding the basic mechanics of how we socialize toxic masculinity in boys, and reify it in men, can help change how it manifests in all spheres of our lives--and especially at work. “If masculinity is something that has to be proved, and work is a site where you can prove it because other people confirm your image back to you, it's going to have to happen at work in some way, shape, or form,” she says.
Those of us interested in fostering innovative, equitable, creative work spaces—especially those of us who are white men—must actively invest in the self-reflection necessary to be enlightened leaders and co-workers. We have to change course and focus on cooperation strategies that support the health of the whole organization. We have to help others thrive.
Or we can keep on as we were, circling coworkers like opponents, trying to stay on top by making sure someone else loses.
That’s a fight nobody wins.