Blog | 5 Sep 2019

Masculinity in the Workplace

This opinion piece forms part of our IMPACTxAsia blog series

Masculinity in the Workplace

In the wake of the global #MeToo movement, masculinity and the privileged position of men have been questioned on an unprecedented scale. The implications and the need to address male power in the workplace in terms of sexual harassment are clear and #MeToo has sparked a re-examining of office culture. But what about the wider implications of masculinity for D&I, the more implicit actions and rituals that impede inclusion but are not explicitly unacceptable? How can we address toxic masculinity as a learnt, entenched and often unconscious behaviour that is hindering inclusion, collaboration and growth in organisations? 

Key to this is understanding that dominant masculinity can have a much wider negative effect on workplace culture. The obvious victims in a negatively masculine work environment would be female employees. This is of course true, but we should not overlook the negative way that a masculine or macho environment can affect LGBT+ employees, people with disabilities or others who do not conform to traditional stereotypes. Masculinity and societal norms that have previously dictated power extend beyond discrimination against women, and it is important that a workplace intervention to address masculinity and power takes into consideration all minority groups and their individual experiences. Leading on from this, it is also important to understand the destructive effect that heteronormative and masculine expectations can have on men themselves – there is a growing body of literature on the ways that masculinity can negatively impact on the mental health of men and boys.  

Knowing the wide reach that a dominant masculine influencee can have on workplace culture, key to combating this is engaging men (in particular men in positions of privilege) in the conversation. Thought leaders such as Michael Kaufman and Jackson Katz talk extensively on the need to engage men in the conversations around the discrimination and mistreatment of women. And ultimately, men in positions of power can be an influential force for change when enlisted as allies. But being an ally against negative masculinity can be hard and requires self-reflection and cognisant behaviour change. As touched upon earlier, toxic masculinity in the workplace is not always as explicit as sexual harassment: dismissive language used about a colleague or having work conversations in the ‘Old Boys Club’ - traditionally reserved for cis-male socialising - foster exclusion but do not often appear on the surface to be detrimental. In these cases, educating the ally on all dimensions of privilege arms them with the tools to speak out and dismantle discriminatory situations. This is often a tough position to be in – by rejecting masculine norms and speaking out against a sexist or homophobic joke for example, our ally puts himself in the firing line and may well experience negative outcomes. It is equally important to equip allies with an understanding of this and the tools to react when it does happen. It is also important to educate and understand the complexity of one’s own multiple identities – as an ethnic minority male in a position of power in the workplace, one may feel comfortable calling out racist behaviour, but what about sexism or homophobia in the workplace? It is vital that male allies look beyond their own experiences (both the privileges and the challenges) and act as benevolent allies in the fight against masculinity and its hold over our workplaces.  

Through his work for the Better Man Conference, Ray Arata works to develop what he describes as ‘healthy masculinity’ or ‘emotional literacy’ in the workplace, helping men in positions of power to utilise their own privilege and vulnerability to become an example for others. Anger and aggression have become the default way that stress manifests in men. By pointing this out and searching for the root emotion, Arata has found that men become more comfortable with the range of emotions available to them and are less afraid of being seen as vulnerable.  

Finally, it is just as important to change the narrative at an organisational level. Traditionally, success and masculinity hold many of the same traits and similar language cues (strength, stamina, dog-eat-dog, man-up etc). Some women who have risen to positions of power in organsations have suggested that adopting ‘male traits’ was one of the ways they could succeed and compete in a male-dominated environment. By conforming to the notion that masculinity is a marker of business success, we run the risk of perpetuating an exclusionary culture. There are interesting movements combating these traditional norms. Megumi Miki’s Quietly Powerful equips quieter professionals with the tools to succeed and re-define what good leadership looks like. For too long, the loudest ‘alpha’ has been appointed to lead teams and it has become apparent that this aggressive style of leadership may be hindering both inclusion and productivity. 

It is encouraging to see times and attitudes changing and the traditional narrative of success slowly being chipped away to allow diversity to thrive in our workplaces. In order to keep up this momentum, there are several steps that we can take:  

As Allies  

  • Be courageous and call out exclusionary or derogatory behaviour when you see it in the workplace 

  • Be proactive and learn as much as possible about the causes of inequality and how to address them, especially from people who have views and experiences that are different from your own 

  • Be willing to challenge your own biases and behaviours 

  • Provide a safe space for employees to raise their concerns or to share their experiences  

  • Advocate for equality (eg. equal pay and treatment) in your workplace  

As Employees 

  • Challenge or question policies or practices in your workplace  (and be prepared to vote with your feet if they do not measure up to your expectations) 

  • Sign up for unconscious bias training and learn to identify and disrupt your own biases  

  • Seek out mentors who nurture inclusive qualities and behaviour  

  • If you are a victim of bad behavior such as bullying or overt discrimination, and if calling out the behavior is not an option or is not working, take steps to make a formal complaint through your organisation’s reporting channels 

As Leaders  

  • Assess your own leadership and communication styles to ensure they are inclusive, eg. Are you giving all your team members equal air time during meetings? Are you using overly masculine or domineering language? Do you treat your male and female team members differently?  

  • Be bold and ask your colleagues to give you constructive feedback on your own behaviour (and be prepared to listen and make changes when they do!)  

  • Role model the right values and behaviours, ie. walk the talk 

  • Create an inclusive workplace culture that respects openness and diverse perspectives 

  • Influence others by taking a stance and refusing to serve on traditionally cis-gender or all-male boards or panels  


About the Author: Emily Moss, Senior Manager, Marketing & Communications, Community Business