Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Building a Better Workplace for All”

In a recent article about How Toxic Masculinity Is Ruining Your Workplace Culture – published by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) – author Holly Althof shares this: “There’s nothing wrong with masculinity, but it’s essential to separate traditional masculinity from the toxic behaviors that create negative cultures.”

In that piece, Lisa Hickey, CEO of Good Men Media Inc. and the publisher of The Good Men Project, an online social and editorial platform, shares this:

Masculinity becomes toxic when it’s tied to behavior designed to ‘get ahead at all costs,’ The same toxic message is echoed in phrases such as ‘Winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing.’ When these attitudes take hold, abusive behavior that helps men get ahead is minimized, normalized or even encouraged, depending on the workplace culture.”

The article goes on to outline key “toxic masculine behaviors” including:

– Acting like a bully to maintain a constant competitive edge

– Avoiding losing at all costs

– Restraining one’s emotions, except for pride and anger

– Showing strength and aggression in times of conflict

– Being dominant over women and other men (which is typically displayed through microagressions

But what about other forms of masculinity, that aren’t considered “toxic.” If masculinity as a whole is the dominant cultural model for leadership today, then what are the repercussions and outcomes for women and other underrepresented groups in these organizations?

With only 4.8% of the world’s largest businesses on the Global 500 being run by female CEOS, and as only 8.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, this is a critical issue to understand.

To learn more about this important topic, I caught up this month withLudo Gabriele, Senior Director of MARC Branding (Men Advocating Real Change) at Catalyst. MARC is an initiative designed to inspire and equip men to leverage their unique opportunity and responsibility to be advocates for equity. MARC’s research-based experiential learning disrupts traditional diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) approaches, enhances gender partnership, and accelerates the creation of inclusive workplaces.

Gabriele is also the founder of Woke Daddy, a platform where he shares his thoughts about fatherhood, masculinity, and society at large that has received international coverage. Prior to joining Catalyst, Ludo accumulated 10+ years of international marketing and branding experience in an advertising agency and as an entrepreneur, and he holds a Master’s degree in Management from the ESM-A Management school in Paris.

Catalyst is a global nonprofit supported by many of the world’s most powerful CEOs and leading companies to help build workplaces that work for all. Founded in 1962, Catalyst drives change with preeminent thought leadership, actionable solutions, and a galvanized community of multinational corporations to accelerate and advance women into leadership—because progress for women is progress for everyone.

Gabriele shares his research and insights on how masculine norms impact leadership norms and how dominance-based masculinity leads to inequity and prejudice in the workplaces and beyond.

Kathy Caprino: Ludo, what are the masculine “norms” you teach and speak about, and how do they largely shape commonly accepted/expected leadership norms and practices today?

Ludo Gabriele: The ideas associated with traditional masculinity and what it means to be a man still largely revolve around being strong, dominant, aggressive, assertive, stoic, superior to women, and emotionless: this is what is called the Man Box culture. Boys are socialized this way from a young age and have been pressured, encouraged, and rewarded for displaying those behaviors.

Given the fact that men still hold most leadership roles in society, it is not surprising that we see a lot of similarities when we compare those attributes with the way organizations are managed and how they compete with one another.

Caprino: Research has shown that diverse, equitable and inclusive organizations outperform others, and are far superior in other key ways we measure business performance and success.When considering the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in our workplaces today, why is it crucial to engage men in this movement to DEI?

Gabriele: Historically, men (especially straight white able-bodied men) have been absent in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space because those topics were framed as issues that did not concern them. Many people still wrongly consider gender equity issues exclusively as women issues.

No meaningful progress can be achieved on anything without involving the majority. Men still represent the vast majority of leadership roles in organizations and governments: therefore, building inclusive culture must be framed as a leadership imperative.

Research shows that 96% of organizations make progress on DEI when men are involved, compared to only 30% when men are not involved.

Men have a critical role to play and have both an opportunity and a responsibility to advocate for greater equity. We all have something to gain and something to contribute to building inclusive workplaces.

Caprino: What are the challenges attached to engaging men in DE&I and inspiring them to embrace a more expansive view of masculinity?

In our research, we identified three individual barriers preventing men to engage in DE&I:

  • Apathy: The sense that diversity, equity, and inclusion is not a man’s issue to solve or to be concerned about.
  • Ignorance: Which reflects the reality when men genuinely have no idea of what women or other marginalized groups go through in the workplace.
  • Fear: Fear is a barrier which manifests in different forms. The three main examples of fear are 1) the fear of saying the wrong thing or taking the wrong step; 2) the fear of losing status, which is rooted in zero sum thinking with the idea that if women are winning, men are somehow losing; and finally, 3) the fear of being judged by other men.

The perceived cost of advocating for greater equity is still perceived as very high by men, and understandably so. For instance, research shows that men perceived as less self-promoting and more collaborative and power-sharing are evaluated by both men and women as less competent (and ironically less masculine).

We should not minimize the strength and the validity of some of those barriers, especially the fear component.

Research finds that men’s status, in particular, can take a sizeable hit when they challenge (as opposed to promote) an organization’s status quo. At the same time, men are socialized to value status from a young age; maintaining a high status in various contexts, including the workplace, is a central component of societal images of who a “real man” is. Men’s concerns about how they will be viewed are justified.

The costs for men, can extend to anxiety about their masculine status, which we have also discussed in a previous report: 94% of men experience masculine anxiety in the workplace, which dramatically decreases their likelihood of interrupting sexism when it occurs.

Caprino: Ludo, I hear frequently from my female clients and course members that they are on the receiving end of “mansplaining” which I describe as the act of a man (often in a meeting or public forum) endeavoring to explain to (or correct) a woman about a topic or idea that she already knows a great deal about, and often has more knowledge about the topic than the man offering his explanation.Can you share more about what this behavior, and how it is sexism in action?

Gabriele: Mansplaining is a form of sexism, which we define as the result of assumptions, misconceptions, and stereotypes that rationalize discrimination, mistreatment, and objectification of people based on their sex, gender, or sexual orientation. When we think about sexism, we often think about its most overt forms; however, sexism is a spectrum.

At Catalyst, we define hostile sexism as explicitly negative attitudes toward a person based on their sex. (For example, the belief that women are incompetent.)

There’s also benevolent sexism, which we define as stereotypical attitudes about people based on their sex that may be perceived as positive (e.g., the belief that women are more compassionate).

I would put mansplaining somewhere between benevolent sexism and hostile sexism depending on the context. Many men have been socialized and conditioned to perceive themselves as superior to women and therefore feel compelled to act out of a savior complex to explain to women “how the world actually works.” Sexism is disempowering and dehumanizing. Whether the intention is benevolent or not, sexism, even when masked as flattery, is still sexism.

Caprino: Can you share your views about the organizational factors that influence men’s ability or confidence to interrupt sexism?

Gabriele: Organizational climates are a huge factor in men’s engagement in diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I). Our research found that most men (86%) say that they are committed to interrupting sexist behaviors when they see them in the workplace. However, only 31% say they are confident they can do so. According to our research, an organizational climate of silence often discourages men from speaking up.

We define climate of silence as an environment where employees feel restrained from constructively speaking up about organizational or work-related problems, concerns, or challenges

We also identified two types of organizational climates which are particularly detrimental to men’s confidence in interrupting sexism:

  1. Combative culture: Hyper-competitive workplace culture in which value is attributed to a quest to dominate others and compete over power, authority, and status.
  2. Climate of futility: The sense that efforts to make change will not matter or have desired impact.

The negative impact of those climates clearly demonstrates that men’s individual agency alone, while necessary, is not enough to interrupt sexism and create inclusive cultures.

Caprino: So what can organizations specifically and concretely do to create an environment that does not permit or foster sexism?

Gabriele: Here are four steps that organizations can take to prevent sexism to operate:

Look inward: Leaders must have the courage, curiosity, and humility to reflect on their role in suppressing or encouraging employee voices and notice when personal barriers hold them back from listening to employees who have less institutional clout.

Help men recognize gender bias: Provide men with opportunities for discussions about gender in the company of other men exclusively so that they do not feel inhibited. Provide opportunities for cross-gender mentoring.

Remove barriers to men’s support: Develop a clearly stated policy regarding gender equity to discourage zero-sum thinking, the perception that gains for women mean losses for men.

Promote dialogue: Challenge a climate of silence, where employees believe speaking up will bring negative repercussions or fear their voice won’t be heard, if it exists. Promote opportunities for critical dialogue in which differences in perspectives and experiences are validated.

Caprino: What can we as individuals do to foster a more inclusive workplace?

Gabrielle: There are four steps that all of us can take to create more inclusive cultures:

Take a genuine interest in the experience of others

Bias is all around us, but we often fail to notice it. Ask yourself: “Do I actively seek to understand the experiences of people different from myself?” Knowledge is the best ally in destroying hurtful stereotypes and uncovering unconscious biases.

Build Confidence to overcome barriers to change

Call “in” rather than “call out” mistakes. Don’t make assumptions about people’s intentions or ability to take an active role in creating greater equity and inclusion, regardless of their gender identity.

Engage in dialogue

Be open about your own experiences and commitment to inclusion. Speak out and encourage others to do the same. Create safe spaces for others to speak.

Commit to advocacy

Take responsibility for your own learning and model the positive behaviors that you wish to see in others.

Training to introduce important new learning

As an example, the MARC suite of learning programs offers something for employees at all levels, including short online trainings that lay a foundation of understanding; immersive learning experiences for leaders; and everything in between. Before an organization can choose which path is the right one to take, it must assess where it stands on its DEI journey. Our broad range of approaches allows for different entry points.

Caprino: Any last words—for leaders and managers, to help them build work cultures that work better for all?

Gabriele: I would like to reference some critical words shared by Alix Pollack, leader of the MARC initiative, during our last global event Real Change with MARC regarding the implications behind reimagining gender equity.

“Inviting in and amplifying more women’s and non-binary voices is part of the path toward change. And, we cannot hope to meaningfully shift paradigms and change the narrative around leadership, inclusive culture, and gender equity, without the committed partnership of men. Many of our MARC alumni know this all too well and have taken this on. We need many more still to join the movement.

As we move this work forward, we can no longer allow ourselves to be held back by the misbelief that we can fix the problems of tomorrow with the solutions of yesterday. We cannot expect to achieve breakthrough change without breakthrough dialogue. We cannot be comfortable and transformative at the same time.

We cannot disrupt the status quo and expect to continue to please those whom the status quo serves. Change is hard. And change is well worth the hard.”

To learn more, visit Catalyst and MARC.

Kathy Caprino is a global career and leadership coach, speaker, executive trainer and author of The Most Powerful You.

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