Since the #MeToo movement ignited a national outcry about the rampant sexual harassment and abuse in industries from film and television to politics, workplaces have been much more attuned to the way “traditional” (some might say “toxic”) socialized masculinity can contribute to gender inequality, bias, and sexual misconduct.
But even progressive companies can struggle with “masculinity contest cultures,” according to a paper published in the Harvard Business Review last year. These cultures may include harassment and abuse, but the more “benign” elements will also sound familiar to many office workers:
... taking on and bragging about heavy workloads or long hours, cutting corners to out-earn others, and taking unreasonable risks either physically (in blue-collar jobs) or in decision-making (e.g., rogue traders in finance). The competition breeds unspoken anxiety (because admitting anxiety is seen as weak) and defensiveness (e.g., blaming subordinates for any failure), undermining cooperation, psychological safety, trust in co-workers, and the ability to admit uncertainty or mistakes.
These contests don’t just make life miserable for people of all genders. They also suppress innovation, and are particularly common in high-risk, male-dominated industries such as law enforcement, tech, and finance.
In these “hyper-competitive, Game of Thrones-style environments,” the Stanford researcher and co-author of the paper Marianne Cooper says, “physicality is prized” — including shows of stamina, like working day and night ahead of a product launch. Bullying is normalized. Family life and health are devalued. Workers try to win at all costs, even if it means sabotaging co-workers, so teamwork and collaboration are difficult.
“Innovation and creativity is really born out of psychological safety and teams. When people have toxic leaders, or are being bullied, that really stymies that whole process.”