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NextGen Magazine


Study: 'Masculinity Contest Culture' Toxic to Organizations

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Nov 5, 2018

A recent study outlined in the Harvard Business Review found that organizations that have what researchers called a "Masculinity Contest Culture" tended to produce toxic leaders, low psychological safety, low work and family support, sexist climates, harassment and bullying, higher burnout and turnover rates, and higher rates of illness and depression among both male and female employees. 

A "masculinity contest culture" is defined in the study as one in which four different cultural norms pervade the organization and its leadership: 

  1. “Show no weakness”: a workplace that demands swaggering confidence, never admitting doubt or mistakes, and suppressing any tender or vulnerable emotions (“no sissy stuff”).
  2. “Strength and stamina”: a workplace that prizes strong or athletic people (even in white collar work) or those who show off their endurance (e.g., by working extreme hours).
  3. “Put work first”: a workplace where nothing outside the organization (e.g., family) can interfere with work, where taking a break or a leave represents an impermissible lack of commitment.
  4. “Dog eat dog”: a workplace filled with ruthless competition, where “winners” (the most masculine) focus on defeating “losers” (the less masculine), and no one is trusted.

The researchers noted that masculinity, as people typically think about it, is something that must be earned and proven time and time again, and it can be considered lost in the wake of failure to do so. They also noted that, in many cultures, masculinity takes the form of displaying behaviors seen as dominant, tough, risk-taking, aggressive and rule breaking. The researchers said that the need to repeatedly prove manhood can "lead men to behave aggressively, take unwarranted risks, work extreme hours, engage in cut-throat competition, and sexually harass women (or other men), especially when they feel a masculinity threat."

The paper itself outlined a 20‐item Masculinity Contest Culture (MCC) scale as a workplace culture assessment. it found that "[a]cross two studies in which individuals rated their work environments, the MCC correlated with: (a) negative organizational dynamics (e.g., poor culture and toxic leadership), (b) dominative coworker behaviors (e.g., bullying and harassment), (d) negative individual work attitudes (e.g., burnout, turnover intentions), and (e) poor personal well‐being. Results were generally consistent across studies and participant sex, suggesting that masculinity contest norms harm organizations and the men and women within them."

Other research has touched on this phenomena as well.  A 2013 academic study found that men are perceived as more feminine when asking for time off for such tasks and are more likely to be seen as poor workers. It reported that, "compared with control targets, male leave requesters were viewed as higher on weak, feminine traits (e.g., weak and uncertain), and lower on agentic masculine traits (e.g., competitive and ambitious). Perceptions of weakness uniquely predicted greater risk for penalties (e.g., being demoted or downsized) and fully accounted for the effect of poor worker stigma on male leave requesters’ penalties." 

The Center for WorkLife Law, meanwhile, observed that men who take time off to perform what's seen as more masculine parenting activities, such as coaching a sports team, were viewed as good fathers and would get raises and better career opportunities, with the idea that it would make them a better breadwinner. This courtesy is not extended, however, to men who take time off for more nurturing-type parental activities such as taking care of sick children or elderly parents. These men, by contrast, actually get penalized in a similar manner to women. Another study quoted women in finance who said that "High performers are associated with masculine character traits" and "you had to act like a guy or you did not stand a chance." 

Outside perceptions of gender conformity itself, the Harvard paper's  mention of rule-breaking as an effect of a masculine contest culture brings to mind another study finding that people with cavalier attitudes about rules tend to gravitate to entrepreneurial pursuits and, initially at least, can find success there due to this very mindset. 

"People who become incorporated business owners tend to be more educated and—as teenagers—score higher on learning aptitude tests, exhibit greater self-esteem, and engage in more illicit activities than others. The combination of “smart” and “illicit” tendencies as youths accounts for both entry into entrepreneurship and the comparative earnings of entrepreneurs. Individuals tend to experience a material increase in earnings when becoming entrepreneurs, and this increase occurs at each decile of the distribution," said the study abstract. 

The Harvard paper said the persistence of masculine contest cultures can be attributed to, first, the association people have been these sorts of behaviors and success despite the dysfunction it produces and, second, that questioning such contests tends to mark people as, bluntly, "losers" and perhaps other even more unflattering titles. The researchers believe this can be seen in overall ineffectiveness in sexual harassment training to reduce incidents of sexual harassment. 

To address this type of culture and undo some of the damage it creates, the researchers said that, first, companies must establish a stronger focus on the mission itself, and, second, dispel misconceptions that “everyone endorses this.” The odd person out must be the one who insists on maintaining this culture, versus the one pushing back against it. 

Those who'd like to discuss this and other topics relating to gender in the workplace, the NYSSCPA is hosting its first Women's Leadership Forum in January. You can register at this link