Skip to main content

Masculinity isn't effectiveness

I almost titled this blog post "dick-swinging isn't leadership".

Toxic masculinity is highly prevalent in business culture. If we accept that one of the primary roles of a manager is to create the conditions for your team to do your best work, it's something that we need to watch out for and put a stop to early. Speaking for myself, it's also exhausting: I'd rather work on a team that is empathetic, compassionate, and collaborative than one that is competitive, unemotional, and aggressive.

It's important to distinguish toxic masculinity from masculinity: I'm not at all saying that men can't be empathetic, compassionate, and collaborative. Those are certainly qualities I try (however imperfectly) to cultivate in myself. I'm also not buying into the malformed idea of gender essentialism, which posits that some qualities are fixed and core to women and men. Nonetheless, a lot of men have been conditioned to believe they need to be stoic and competitive; that dominance is a positive characteristic. The go-to insult of the anti-feminist alt-right is "cuck": a man who is perceived to be weak or servile. It's an idea that hurts men as much as women, and is one of the reasons that men commit suicide 3-4 times more often than women.

Because of historic inequities that may take generations to untangle, men still dominate boardrooms, and we bring our underdeveloped emotional intelligence with us. We talk over women and question their competence (although this is finally beginning to change). Men also tend to underestimate people who bring a more collaborative energy: someone who isn't aggressive, or is even less self-assured or simply an introvert, is likely to have less space to contribute during meetings, and may be regarded less highly overall within the company. Collaboration and creativity suffer.

It compounds when two subscribers to toxic masculinity clash (whether they're conscious or unconscious subscribers doesn't matter). Tempers will rise, recriminations rebound, and voices are raised. It creates a culture where disagreements are frowned upon, or where people who shy away from visceral conflict are less able to contribute.

The solution isn't that people who are more conflict-averse should become more assertive. It certainly isn't that women should become more like men, or that everyone should learn the skills of toxic masculinity. The only path towards creating a collaborative working environment is to respect everyone in the room, intentionally give them equal footing to speak. As Franklin Hu puts it:

It’s the meeting moderator’s job to both create a psychologically safe environment and ensure that participants have an equal opportunity to contribute. Shaping the environment that meetings happen in helps to lower the barrier for people to contribute in meetings by hopefully eliminating entire classes of extrinsic factors that may dissuade individuals.

By creating an inclusive culture, and specifically calling out toxic masculinity when we see it, we can ensure everyone can contribute, build a more highly-functioning team, improve our company's prospects, and have a better time at work.