Leaders May Be Unknowingly Cultivating a ‘Masculinity Contest Culture’

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Authored by

NLI Staff
Organizations often justify a toxic environment and masculinity contest culture with the mentality of "how we do business here."

Organizational norms are like the air we breathe: We don’t question them because we’re constantly immersed in them — until they become too toxic to ignore.

In a recent session on gender, bias, and inclusion at the 2018 NeuroLeadership Summit, Lawrence University social psychologist Peter Glick discussed research that has shown that the deficit of women in top leadership positions isn’t because of the women; it’s because of the cultures they’re up against. In addressing harassment and other toxic behaviors, keying in on these kinds of norms is crucial.

Specifically, Glick proposed that leaders may be unknowingly creating a “masculinity contest culture,” or MCC, in which organizational norms are anchored in masculinity but masked and legitimized as “how we do business here.”

According to Glick, four key norms emerge in MCCs, and they determine whom an organization values most:

  • Show No Weakness (admit no mistakes, show no tender emotions)
  • Strength and Stamina (champion physical strength and workplace stamina)
  • Put Work First (work long hours, let no obligation interfere with work)
  • Dog Eat Dog (ruthless internal competition, destroy the opposition)

MCCs can lead to widespread dysfunction and misconduct in organizations, ranging from minor off-color comments to illegal behavior. Importantly, Glick’s research has shown MCCs create negative outcomes for both men and women, including toxic leadership, low psychological safety, bullying behavior, and zero-sum competition.

“These norms create a kind of gladiatorial arena,” Glick said during the session. “And once you’re in the arena, you better darn well pick up a weapon.”

The playing field in an MCC isn’t exactly level. MCCs discourage women by creating a hostile environment, yet when women look to participate in the masculinity contest, they are often condemned as being overly dominant. As Glick observes, this creates a double bind where “you’re in the arena, but your hand is strung from the start.” Over time, those women who make it through the MCC become less likely to champion fellow women.

Social threats, categorized in the SCARF® Model, likely affect whether women choose to speak up or put themselves out there in MCCs. For example, women may experience overwhelming threats to their status, fairness, and relatedness, especially when they get penalized for trying to embody the traits of their male colleagues.

What are the implications? Before compliance and litigation, leaders must fully embrace the business case for cultural reform. That means focusing their energy toward exposing who is setting and shaping the norms, and questioning the reasons why. When changes start coming from the top — typically from those who have already won the contest — it sends a strong signal to followers of the MCC.

One caveat: Glick advises leaders to frame the initiative in a way that’s not “for the women,” but rather for the effectiveness of the entire organization, so that everyone can feel ownership in helping the culture thrive. Rather than taking the interest group route that can unintentionally stoke an “us vs. them” mentality, cultivate  one big in-group by organizing around the “superordinate” goals that everybody can get behind.

“It’s well known that having a high degree of psychological safety helps spark innovation,” Glick says. “Instead of framing it as ‘more psychology safety,’ which sounds weak, make it about innovation. To innovate we need certain conditions, so we’re creating these new norms to achieve this goal.”

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