Liberating the ‘Men’s Men’ in our Midst — by Terry Howard

“Real men don’t take paternity leave,” said Robert on CNN’s Facebook page. When reminded by a commenter that it’s no longer the 1950s, Robert responded: “I wish it were the ’50s. Those were the days when men were men.”   Hum, “when men were men!” Has an Archie Bunker-ish ring to it, huh?

Let’s rewind to 21 years ago and a scene at an off-site meeting. On the patio after dinner, I joined eight men, among them “Jim,” a vice president at a company in New Jersey. Loose lipped by the beer, we argued through colorful language about sports, “rated” women – asinine as that was – and sucked up to Jim, bending over in laughter at his crass – and largely unfunny – jokes. And then came this exchange:

BOB: Jim, what are your vacation plans this year?

JIM: (a Marlboro Light dangling from his lips) A two-week trip to Hawaii.

BOB: Wow, I know your wife is looking forward to that.

JIM: Are you kidding? No way am I taking the wife. BOB: Going alone, huh?

JIM: Nope, I’m taking my mistress. The rest of us toasted Jim and roared in approving laughter.

On the way home, I felt uncomfortable with what had happened on that patio. And yet I laughed along, driven by my need to fit in with “the guys.” An hour later, as I faced my beautiful wife, my missus, the man in the bathroom mirror didn’t like what I saw, what I’d become, and the price I’d paid for conformity.

Fast forward to two years after that. The scene: another off-site, same hotel, same participants, same patio:

TODD:  Rumor has it that Bill is having an affair with Tillie in cost accounting.

JIM: Oh yeah? But I thought that they were both married to someone else.

TODD: They are.

JIM: Well I’ll be darned. Bill’s my kinda man. What about you Terry? Do you have a babe on the side?

ME: Yes I do Jim … my wife! Silence!

Unlike the previous encounter, my revelation was not met with approving laughter. Nobody hoisted a toast on my behalf. Instead, they gulped down their beers and returned to the main room.Realizing that I’d just broken a code, I slipped out to my beat-up old Honda and headed home feeling a tad uneasy, but darn proud of myself. Now I got an uneasy feeling afterward that I was no longer “one of the guys.” Not only was I not invited to after-work activities anymore, folks in the office were now guarded around me. Apparently word had gotten out about me. Albeit subtle, I could feel a difference.

Fast forward to late 2013. The scene: a small conference room in the lobby at RFAB. Over a sub and coke, I clicked on a link to the report, “Engaging Men in Gender Initiatives: What Change Agents Need to Know,” written by New York-based Catalyst.  The immediate attention-getter for me was the chapter, “Understanding Masculine Norms,” against which, psychologists say men in many societies’ identities are defined. They say that how men negotiate these norms is a key determinant of whether they support or resist efforts to close gender gaps in the workplace. Those common masculine norms, in varying degrees in different North American and Western European cultures, are:

  • “Be a winner” – This concerns the attainment of status and defines as manly any activity that increases men’s wealth, social prestige and power. Men gain approval when they make their careers a priority and pursue occupational fields such as management and politics, which offer opportunities to increase their social and economic status. Men who pursue fields that offer fewer opportunities for such status are less likely to be admired, especially in those fields judged to be better for women.
  • “Show no chinks in the armor” – Men should be tough, meaning never shrinking from the threat of physical harm. Displaying toughness requires that men conceal fear. Outward displays of anger and confidence are viewed as more socially acceptable for men. Notably, in many business settings, showing emotional toughness is often seen as a key leadership attribute.
  • “Be a man’s man” – Also known as being “one of the boys,” this rule calls for men to win the respect and admiration of other men. Being a “man’s man” means complying with all masculine norms. He must also participate in stereotypically masculine activities or pastimes (which depending on the culture may include watching sports, drinking beer, etc.). These activities not only serve as rituals that reinforce masculine norms but also promote social ties and solidarity on the basis of these norms. Indeed, the rewards for being a man’s man are great, particularly in male-dominated professions where “being one of the boys” is often paramount to gaining access to informal networks and other resources that are linked to professional advancement.
  • “Avoid all things feminine” – This rule requires that men should never be seen conforming to feminine norms. If a man acts in ways consistent with norms prescribed for women, he may experience criticism, ridicule and rejection and his status as a man may be called into question. Pejorative terms such as “sissy,” “wimp” and “whipped” are regularly used to label males who act feminine and are often an effective deterrent against future violations of the norm of avoiding the feminine.

Although not mentioned in the report, the last norm, “Avoid all things feminine,” presents an additional challenge in the area of “gender expression,” defined as external manifestations of one’s gender identity expressed through masculine or feminine-variant behaviors, clothing, haircut or body characteristic.

Such pejorative terms as “girly men” or “butchy women” are often used to label men and women who may express behaviors associated with the opposite gender. (The reader should note that Gender Expression is included in the company’s nondiscrimination policy.)

Now clearly, individual men vary as to how much they comply, or don’t comply, with different masculine norms. However, according to the report, men can pay a price for such compliance.

“In trying to live up to masculine norms, many men place a priority on career advancement, sacrificing relationships with family, spouses and friends – relationships that not only improve quality of life but that can also offer an important source of psychological support in times of stress,” the report states.

“Conformity to masculine norms related to emotional control or toughness can limit men’s ability to acknowledge and seek help for problems such as depression, anxiety and illness.”

Even though the cost of conformity can be high, resistance can also be costly. According to Catalyst, research shows that men experience social penalties, including rejection and loss of status – which are often harsher than those women face – when they deviate from their assigned gender scripts. I know this from my experience with Jim, beer and “the guys” on that patio.

OK, it’s out there. I’ve exposed myself to some eyebrow-raising as an “ex-man’s man.” As risky and lonely as it can be sometimes, it is at the same time freeing and liberating.

Questions for a thoughtful analysis:

1.      If you are a man, which of the masculine norms do you suspect you might exhibit the most? Which ones do you find most stifling?

2.      What, by contrast, are some typical “feminine norms”?

3.      Is the price women risk paying for veering from feminine norms the same or different from the price men pay for deviating from theirs?

4.      As a leader, which gender norms might you tend to value, reinforce – or penalize for deviation – albeit unintentionally?

5.      How best can one coach the otherwise well-intentioned “Jim’s” (or “Jill’s”) in the organization to realize the impact of their behaviors in reinforcing stereotypical gender-based norms and assumptions?

6.      In a cultural context – take “machismo” for example – are gender norms the same or are they different?

7.      The need to “fit in” is a powerful one. How can leaders and caring peers recognize then interrupt this tendency if the signs are that it may diminish a person’s individuality and ultimately their productivity?

The Price Organizations Pay for Conformity

Organizations can significantly affect whether men conform to or resist certain masculine norms. Research also suggests that by rewarding strict conformity to masculine norms, organizations may inadvertently compromise their performance. For example, working with a large oil company, researcher Robin Ely found that traditional masculine norms emphasizing fearlessness and toughness – i.e., showing no chinks in the armor – had a negative impact on the organization’s safety record.

By reinforcing these norms, the organization paid a significant price; high accident rates. To fix the safety problem, rather than rewarding oil rig employees, who were mostly male, to live by these masculine norms, the organization encouraged them to defy these norms and consequently saw an 84% decline in its accident rate. What’s more, when employees stopped being so concerned about projecting a “tough guy” image, they reported finding new, more fulfilling ways to express their identities as men in the workplace.

Terry Howard

© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer and story teller. He is also a contributing writer with the Chattanooga New Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Atlanta Business Journal, The Shenandoah Valley Hit, Catalyst, The Echo World, founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, and recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King Leadership Award. He can be reached at wwhoward3@gmail.com