Signs you work in a masculinity contest culture

by | Dec 4, 2018


How to identify and improve a masculinity contest culture

A masculinity contest culture might sound outdated, but many of its traits are entrenched in our offices. It's time to expose and banish this behaviour.


The behaviours of toxic workplace cultures present themselves in any number of ways. Some of those are so deeply engrained in our psyches that we no longer recognise them for what they are.  Research from the Harvard Business Review recently exposed a tendency for some organisations to reward employees for displaying behaviour that is overtly gendered. Named as the “masculinity contest” culture, these corporate cultures are less widespread than previous generations, but they have not been phased out entirely. Many claim that some of these non-inclusive behaviours are still flourishing in some sectors and businesses.


A masculinity contest culture exhibits stereotypical masculine behaviour with characteristics which are not typically associated with a 21st century knowledge economy. This includes high levels of unnecessary competition and even aggression. Types of behaviours might cover:


  • High value on physical endurance and stamina, even in an office
  • Belittling those who are not willing or unable to fit in.


HBR identified four red flags that you are caught in a masculinity contest culture:

masculinity contest culture

Weakness is not tolerated

This might be couched in exclusive language such as “lunch is for wimps” over any signs of sympathy, or empathy is for “pussies.” They discourage accepting responsibility for mistakes and urge employees to “nail, kill or smash it” to meet individual goals, in the place of team collaboration.

Strength and stamina are go-to traits

Physical strength and stamina are not requirements of an office- based job. Where it manifests itself is in the call for endurance to work long hours, or to be willing to “go the distance” and give 110%.  This is via:

  • 24/7 availability, late or night working, skipping lunch, early meetings or travel requirements
  • Team building or off-site events around extreme physical activities - zip lining, segway treasure hunts, outward-bound activities
  • Sleep deprivation is a badge of honour

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Work is your priority

Masculinity contest culture means that your top priority is your work. Forget families, relationships or health. All that matters is meeting your personal professional goals, as long as they align with the organisation's too. Employees brag about the number of hours they work, billable and otherwise and how little they see their families or partners.

 An atmosphere of competition

A bit of healthy rivalry in an office always adds a frisson of excitement. But in a masculinity contest culture employees prioritise winning at any cost. This is to the detriment of team spirit or other elements of the business.


Take action against a masculinity contest culture

Here are some suggestions about what you can do about it:

# Create a company or team charter

Look for a formal agreement amongst your team about the type of behaviour you want to embrace as a group in order to manage expectations. This will also be about building trust to agree where the boundaries are and where the red lines are. Tacitly this helps you to seek a new way to work and be, and in so doing reject the old ways.

# Ask for inclusive workplace training

If you request training in an area that raises the question of inclusivity for all, it will have a serious impact. Set up systems to flag up behaviours which are not inclusive; it will serve as a constant reminder to everyone to stay on point.

# Leave

You can always vote with your feet. It may be the time to assess if the company culture is aligned with your values and to look elsewhere.

An inclusive workplace environment is essential for business success, but sometimes it is difficult to identify toxic culture. It can be helpful to bring in an external consultant to do a cultural audit with a neutral and objective eye.


Our Unconscious Bias Training Workshops will improve your workplace for everyone. Find out more HERE.

Staff Writer: Career Contributor
3Plus welcomes any writers to join 3Plus as a Staff Writer. If you are an expert in Job Search, Career and Mentoring or just want to share your experiences, contact us! We would love to give you a voice!

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