The Masculinity Contest

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We are all social animals. No secret there. We are social to such an extent that in several studies researchers have found that the single biggest contributor to our happiness in life is the relationships we have and foster. Not just romantic relationships, although these do play a major part in anyone’s life, but the relationships we have within our family, with our friends and with our co-workers, amongst others. On the flip side, nothing is as hurtful or humiliating for us as social rejection. In fact, social rejection activates the same pain centres in our brain as actual physical injury.

I saw a video recently in which the speaker spoke about how to be socially accepted in a workplace is to be, more or less, a man. I’ll explain myself. Corporate workplaces are a male dominated and male infested space. While it is true that more and more women have entered the workforce, but it would be a mistake to think we are anywhere near tilting the balance of power. There are fewer female CEOs of the S&P Fortune 500 companies than there are men named James, William, or Robert. In fact, I remember recently reading that in 2021, the number of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies was at a record high. How many? 41. Out of 500. That is 1/20th of the whole number. So, yes, it isn’t incorrect to say that the workplace, especially the corporate workplace is still a predominantly male space. I work in the legal industry – specifically in the corporate legal sector. There is a very visible trickling down in the number of women at the top, as compared to how many of us join the company as freshers. In my year alone, the firm I worked for took in 4 women and 2 men. But if you look around in the entire office, there are only 2 female partners compared to the 20+ male partners.

Now, what does it take to be a man? When asked, most people will respond with positive qualities; qualities they believe constitute to the make-up of any normal man. Honestly, reliability, chivalry and what not. But, if you probe a little deeper and ask people what it takes to be a ‘real’ man, their responses tend to point to toxic traits such as callousness, ruthlessness, the ability to win and get yours regardless of the cost and hurt to others. You see this in playgrounds all the time. Men assert dominance through physical strength and such other traits which make a ‘real’ man. In adulthood, the nature of such competition as well as the locus, shifts to the workplace. Since most of our social interaction happens in the workspace, and the workspace is dominated by men, it is not surprising that they will incorporate the social norms they have grown up with. And if the norms they have to follow are based on traits most of us would regard as toxic, it is no wonder that workspaces also become, well, toxic.

This is called the ‘Masculinity Contest’. Basically, the traits you need to survive in modern day corporate workplaces are all masculine (mostly toxic). So, by converting workplaces into adult versions of masculine playgrounds, we invite toxicity in. What are the defining characters or norms of such workplace toxicity?

Showing no weakness

First, you cannot show any weakness. It sounds extreme to say it like this, almost war like, but if you have worked in a corporate set up and take some time to think back on your experiences, you will recognise that this is true. Any sign of doubt, fatigue or even trepidation is taken as weakness in the workplace. You can tell even by looking at the buzzwords so many employers use. We are looking for ‘risk takers’, ‘people who can take initiative’, ‘leaders’, ‘pioneers’, ‘visionaries’. All that hot air, and all they really want you to do is sit behind a desk and edit word documents (or excel sheets) without complaining about the workload. And going to the HR with concerns of overwork? You might as well leave buddy.

Strength and stamina

The second norm is that all workplaces prefer people who can show strength and stamina. Even in white collar workplaces, people prefer, and often promote healthy and good looking jocks as opposed to other less healthier looking people. Now in all fairness, this could be part of a larger problem we have as a society. Something the kids call ‘pretty privilege’. As I’m sure you can guess from the title, it basically means that being attractive comes with its set of privileges, and these privileges often spill onto areas that don’t have anything to do with how you look – for example, people presuming you’re nicer because you’re hot, or recruiters hiring you over your counterparts simply because you happen to be more attractive conventionally.

Work always comes first

The third norm in a toxic work place is the idea that everyone should at all times put work first. You can’t have a life outside of your work and if you do you’re seen as a drag on the team’s resources. You should have no responsibilities that take precedence over your work responsibilities. And even on your off days, most corporate workplaces will expect you to drop whatever you’re doing and get back to work if they need you (which somehow, they always do). I think this is in part because the workplace was designed for a middle aged man of some privilege. The reason why the workplace frowns upon your responsibilities outside of work is because traditionally, their employees had none (read: uninvolved husbands and fathers). You are expected to work as though you have someone at home taking care of the house and children (if you have any) and your only job is to dedicate your life to work, become a company man, and bring in the money. This is simply not true for most of us. No wonder it stresses us out. Doubly so for the women.

Dog eat dog world

And the last norm we uphold in our toxicity as corporate workers is a reinforcement of the idea that it is a ‘dog eats dog’ world. We are encouraged to think of everything as competition under the false belief that this will somehow increase our productivity. It doesn’t. The only thing it does is license bad behaviour in the workplace amongst the mediocre – where you undercut each other and generally act like nasty little beings – and tolerate even worse behaviour amongst the top talent (things like bullying, emotional abuse and even sexual misconduct is overlooked if you are a big earner or part of the inner circle at your workplace).

There have been many studies that show the effects of upholding such norms in the workplace are almost all negative. People report lower levels of productivity, psychological well-being and just general overall happiness in their lives (a major part of which is our work) when they work in conditions highlighted by the norms mentioned above.

The situation, as bad as it is for men, is markedly worse for women. It isn’t called the Masculinity Contest for nothing. Because while such behaviour (as damaging as it is) is encouraged amongst men who want to get ahead professionally, it is simultaneously expected of and disparaged in women. Women are expected to compete in this hyper-masculine space with these hyper-masculine tactics (of never showing weakness, putting work first and acting like the biggest dog around) while never actually displaying masculine traits like aggression or bravado. No, see, displaying such traits will get you labelled as the worst sort of woman and actually reduce your chances of being promoted. This dichotomy deserves an entire blog post of its own, but I haven’t fully gathered my thoughts on this yet, so I am going to leave that for another day.

But the thing about norms is that we have to uphold them ourselves or they lose their meaning. And we do a very good job of doing that.

It is like the story of the naked emperor. I don’t remember all the details of the story, but largely, some tailors told the emperor they were going to design a magical robe for him; one that would only appear to the people that were fit for their office. They designed nothing, and the presented him with nothing. He went about his entire day naked, not wanting to admit he could not see the robes and was therefore unfit for his office. No body else would point it out to him either – because no one wanted to lose their jobs. It is the same thing in corporate office spaces.

Anyone who questions the norms is seen as a weakling and then regarded as not fit enough for the job. There is a masochistic pride in being able to tell stories of how you survived the worst and the most toxic work environment but did not give up. You will reach before your boss, you will pretend to be busy at your desk throughout, acting like you have work even if you don’t, you will waste time in office just to be able to talk about how late you left last night and how overworked you are, and all you’re really doing is perpetuating a toxic norm that doesn’t help anyone, least of all you. You are pretending to see clothes on a naked emperor because you don’t want people to question whether or not you are fit for office. Worse, we disparage people who do not conform to these norms. Everyone might be privately miserable, but because everyone performs the norms publicly there is an illusion that everyone conforms to them and is happy doing so.

The only way in which this toxic corporate culture can change is if we manage to show the leadership that such a change will have a positive impact on the bottom line of the organisation. This reminds me of something I read recently. The pandemic forced everyone to move their work online and taught us to work remotely. Many companies have chosen not to go back to the offline method of work. This is because they asked their employees what they would prefer and the answer was overwhelmingly to stick to working remotely – something that had also had a majorly positive impact on their productivity, and in turn the companies’ profitability. Productivity in the end, comes from happy employees and not from forced pizza parties filled with bad jokes and pissing contests about how close each and every one of us is to a divorce because our spouse hardly ever sees us anymore.

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