A large body of research has shown that when men feel that their gender identity is being questioned or threatened, they are much more likely than women in similar situations to respond by engaging in harmful behaviors. But how does the fragility of masculine identity impact the workplace specifically? The authors share insights from their recent research with employees from across the U.S. and China, in which they found that men (but not women) tend to respond to perceptions that their gender identity has been questioned with a wide variety of harmful workplace behaviors, including withholding help, mistreating coworkers, stealing company property, and lying for personal gain. To address this effect, the authors argue that men must acknowledge that it exists, learn to recognize it in themselves, and proactively embrace a healthier version of masculinity, while managers and leaders can take steps to dismantle the structures that may be driving men to feel that their masculinity is being threatened in the first place. Ultimately, the authors suggest that a workplace culture in which everyone feels that their gender identities are validated, rather than questioned or threatened on the basis of outdated stereotypes, will benefit everyone — both helping men feel more comfortable at work, and reducing the destructive behavior that so often follows when they don’t.
No one likes to feel like their identity is being threatened. Whether someone makes a flawed assumption about your religion, sexual orientation, or even just your favorite sports team, being treated like you’re something you’re not can really sting. And that feeling is only natural — but there are better and worse ways to react to it.
In particular, studies have shown that when men feel that their gender identity is being questioned or threatened, they are much more likely than women to respond by reasserting that identity through aggressive thoughts and harmful, toxic behaviors. A wealth of research has shown that masculinity is among the most fragile of identities, so precarious that even seemingly minor threats can push otherwise-ethical men to lie, cheat, harass, and even commit assault, all in an attempt to prove that they’re “real men.” But how do men react when their masculinity is threatened in the workplace specifically? And what can organizations do both to reduce how often men feel these masculinity threats at work, and reduce the harm caused to everyone when these threats do occur?
To explore these questions, we conducted a series of studies with more than 500 working adults based in the U.S. and China looking at the impact of experiences such as failing to live up to masculine or feminine stereotypes at work, being compared negatively to others with respect to masculine or feminine traits, holding a job traditionally viewed as masculine or feminine, or, for men, reporting to a female supervisor. Through surveys, daily diary entries, and lab experiments, we found that when men perceived these experiences as threats to their masculinity (which they often did), they were more likely to engage in a wide variety of harmful workplace behaviors, including withholding help, mistreating coworkers, stealing company property, and lying for personal gain. However, women who experienced similar threats to their femininity may have been unhappy about it, but it didn’t make them more likely to engage in harmful behaviors.
So what drives this disparity? We found that men often felt a lack of autonomy after they experienced a masculinity threat (or even just thought about a time in the past when they experienced such a threat), while threats to a woman’s femininity had no such impact on her perceived autonomy. This is in line with prior research, which has shown that manhood is often associated with a capacity for independence and autonomous action, while womanhood tends to be more associated with communal action.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting more autonomy. On the contrary, autonomy is a fundamental human need, regardless of gender. But when men feel that their masculinity (and thus, their autonomy) has been threatened, our research shows that they often attempt to reassert their sense of autonomy by engaging in harmful behaviors like lying, cheating, stealing, breaking rules, undermining colleagues, and withholding help. In contrast, since traditional feminine ideals don’t focus as much on being autonomous, questioning a woman’s femininity is less likely to feel like a threat to her autonomy — making women less likely to respond to these experiences with autonomy-restoring behaviors that end up causing harm.
Addressing Fragile Masculinity at Work
There’s no eliminating these issues completely. But the good news is, our research did identify three critical steps employees and managers can take to reduce the harm caused by fragile masculinity in the workplace:
1. Acknowledge Fragile Masculinity
Part of what makes this effect so insidious is that it’s not always obvious when harmful behaviors are driven by perceived masculinity threats. As such, addressing the problem starts with acknowledging that it exists, and building awareness of how fragile masculinity leads to negative outcomes at work. Men often don’t even notice when they feel a threat to their masculinity, and if they respond in a harmful or unproductive way, it’s often unconsciously. By educating themselves about this common, automatic reaction to feeling threatened, men can begin to recognize and break free from this pattern.
In addition, when issues arise, rather than assuming bad behavior is simply caused by being a bad person, managers should also consider whether masculinity threats may potentially be a factor. Of course, feeling that your identity has been threatened is no excuse to harm others, but understanding the true underlying cause of the problem is critical to help managers identify effective solutions to address it. HR leaders can also help by developing training materials and processes to make sure managers and employees alike are aware of this common issue, and are equipped to combat it in themselves and their teams.
2. Embrace Healthy Masculinity
It’s also important to remember that masculinity itself is not the enemy. Wanting to feel masculine isn’t a bad thing, but letting this aspect of your identity push you to engage in harmful workplace behaviors is. As such, rather than hurting others to reestablish their own sense of autonomy, men should seek positive, constructive outlets in which to embrace and demonstrate their masculinity. For example, if a male employee feels uncomfortable engaging in work tasks that feel “feminine,” there’s nothing wrong with doing a bit of job crafting in order to build a role that’s a better fit (though it may also be worth examining whether these stereotypes are really what you want to be guiding your career choices). Men can also pursue hobbies outside of work such as sports or other traditionally masculine activities, if that itch isn’t getting scratched through their work.
At the same time, we will all benefit from broadening our definitions of masculinity. What if we idealized “good men” instead of “real men?” Manhood doesn’t have to just be about traits such as aggression and strength — it can also include qualities like civility, fairness, gentleness, and being nurturing and collaborative. Especially in predominantly male teams, where men are often particularly concerned with establishing their manhood, male leaders should consciously strive to model this more positive version of masculinity. In turn, HR teams should make sure to promote these leaders and increase their visibility within the organization, highlighting their healthier approach as one to be emulated.
3. Dismantle Toxic Structures
Managers and leaders can also take steps to dismantle the structures that may be driving men to feel that their masculinity is being threatened. Organizations that promote traditional masculine values by rewarding individual victories over collaborative ones, prioritizing competition over collegiality, or using “winner-takes-all” incentive structures can feed into toxic ideals of masculinity, creating environments where men will almost inevitably feel inadequate and threatened. By rethinking these systems to promote a healthier kind of masculinity, workplaces can reduce this need to “prove you’re a real man,” thus short-circuiting the harmful cycle of men responding to masculinity threats by engaging in further toxic behavior.
Another way to stop this cycle is by making it easier for employees to feel autonomous. With more freedom around how, when, and where to do their work, the hit to men’s sense of autonomy caused by a perceived masculinity threat may not feel quite so impactful, potentially making them less likely to resort to harmful behaviors in response. Different policies will make sense for different organizations, but exploring various flexible work options and encouraging proactive job crafting can all help boost employees’ sense of autonomy.
And finally, when discussing these issues, managers and leaders should encourage language that focuses on the specific problematic behaviors in which men engage (e.g., “aggression,” “bullying”), rather than relying on vague and more loaded terms such as “toxic masculinity” (which may ironically trigger men to feel that their masculinity is being threatened, thus actually increasing toxic behaviors). Instead of sending the message that masculinity is bad, organizations should call out the ways in which masculinity threats can lead to bad behavior — and invite men and women alike to work together to address the root causes of toxicity in the workplace while encouraging all employees to embrace their authentic identities.
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When it comes to gender equity at work, the conversation often focuses on the disadvantages faced by women. And certainly it is often women who pay the price when men feel that their masculinity has been threatened — but research has shown that this particular type of identity threat itself is, by and large, a predominantly male experience. While our culture generally treats femininity as more stable, and in some workplace contexts even rewards women who exhibit non-feminine traits rather than judging them for not being “real women,” masculinity is viewed as an identity that must constantly be earned, proven, and re-proven. Building a more equitable workplace culture, in which everyone feels that their gender identities are validated rather than questioned or threatened on the basis of outdated stereotypes, will ultimately benefit everyone, both helping men feel more comfortable at work and reducing the destructive behavior that so often follows when they don’t.
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