Toxic Masculinity Oppresses Men in the Workplace, Too
Not even Don Draper likes being Don Draper
I have a male friend who ticks off all the boxes of a prototypical workplace leader. Every day, he plays the part of Don Draper — the brooding 1960s ad man in the TV series Mad Men — by putting on a suit and conforming to people’s notions of what it means to be the brave male boss: working long hours, taking risks, and not showing emotion or displaying any weaknesses. He also works hard to downplay his identity as a father by not mentioning his children or taking time off to care for them.
In other words, he is the very embodiment of what we expect a leader to look like.
Like it or not, workplace environments tend to reproduce the social hierarchy of a society-at-large. That means that we’re subconsciously primed to envision the ideal boss as a white, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied male. Men like my friend, who are able to conform to this specific prototype of successful manhood, get access to informal mentoring, social support, and powerful networks. But there’s a catch: To access all the benefits white male privilege has to offer, men need to fit the prototype by both looking the part and engaging in a series of preordained behaviors.
At work, we see this in action when men are controlling, favoring, competing, conforming, dominating, and supporting one another. Workplaces are set up to not only reward this conformity but to hide any challenges it creates — of which there are many, even for men.
Masculinity is not inherently toxic, and neither is femininity. These labels are really just shorthand for the shared mental images and standards we hold for what it means to be a man or woman. What makes them toxic is the value we associate with them. And in our workplace culture, we uphold an ideal of masculinity that is toxic for everyone.
The “man” in “manager”
Virginia E. Schein, a professor emerita of management and psychology at Gettysburg College, observed in the 1970s that both men and women middle managers believed men to be likelier than women to possess the characteristics associated with managerial success, like objectivity and assertiveness. She called this the Think Manager-Think…