What needs to change in the male-coded workplace?
The male-coded workplace is defined by several characteristics that discourage female participation, and career fear is at the heart of it.
Our current workplaces were built by men for men. In historical terms, women have entered the organisational fray only relatively recently. It is therefore hardly surprising that male values and norms dominate our workplace cultures. We measure success and failure against these values and use them as benchmarks for career progression.
But what are these values that contribute to and define organisational culture?
Characteristics of a male-coded workplace
There are a number of characteristics of a male-coded workplace. Yet all are under-pinned by career fear and gender-based expectations and stereotypes.
● Total commitment
Showing total commitment is the hall mark of an ambitious and successful corporate executive. It is accompanied by a willingness to sacrifice personal and family time and goals. In today’s digital age, presenteeism and connectivity pushes men towards excessive hours. This has an impact on physical and mental health, causing burnout, depression and even suicide.
In the European Union, 77% of reported suicide cases in 2015 involved men. Male gender roles tend to emphasise greater levels of strength, independence, risk-taking behaviour, control of emotions, economic and social success, and individualism. Reinforcement of gender roles and expectations often prevents men from sharing details of their emotional state or from seeking help.
Ironically the 40 hour working week was instituted to protect lower paid and less qualified workers. But today this has changed. Long hours are associated with a successful professional career. In today’s “presence culture,” overwork is the new norm. It is perceived as a badge of honour and resilience by some. We have seen the emergence of a culture of long hours. Employees are expected to be “on call” with a willingness to be available 24/7/365. It is viewed as part of the golden conveyor to career success.
Amy told us how her boss became frustrated with her because she didn’t answer emails at the weekend, when she was on holiday in the Caribbean with a six hour time difference. “It was a routine matter which could have waited until Monday or even my return from holiday.”
● Excessive risk taking
This is about standing out or integrating with the group to gain acceptance or to stop exclusion. This can include physical as well as business risks. The line that illustrates this perfectly suggests if Lehman Brothers had been “Lehman Brothers and Sisters” then perhaps the 2008 financial crisis could have been avoided. Research from the U.K. based Psychological Consultancy shows that women are twice as likely to be cautious as men. “Risk-taking is desirable and required in the workplace. But we need a balance to avoid it spiralling out of control, as we witnessed with the financial crisis”
Essentially, what was seen as exceptional requirements to meet specific needs has become our normal. Professor Diane Vaughan, professor at Columbia University Department of Sociology, describes this as the normalisation of deviance: “Social normalisation of deviance means that people within the organisation become so much accustomed to a deviant behaviour that they don’t consider it as deviant. This is despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for the elementary safety.”
Included in this is the toleration of fiddling expenses, cheating at sport, corner cutting in safety standards (VW emissions), unethical business practices (toxic sub-prime mortgages), sexual harassment (Harvey Weinstein et al), fraudulent accounting (FIFA scandal), and incredibly long hours worked. Organisational regression has resulted in some sectors, gaining notoriety for boiler room pressure and cultures of overwork reminiscent of the 19th century. Associated in those days with low paid unskilled workers, the focus has shifted to highly educated and qualified professionals.
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● Exclusion of non-conforming men
Men that don’t follow the rules of traditional masculinity, and don’t conform to traditional male stereotypes, are excluded or derided. Research from David M. Mayer, of the University of Michigan, suggests that men face backlash when they don’t adhere to masculine gender stereotypes. This can be by showing vulnerability, displaying empathy, expressing sadness, exhibiting modesty, being feminine or even saying they are feminists. Men are derided for interests in activities that are traditionally stereotyped as being feminine. Men too experience the same double bind bias that women do when they deviate from expected behavioural norms. Men are penalized for not being assertive even by women who can contribute to a culture of toxic masculinity.
Research from the University of Cincinnati found that a third of gay men don’t come out in a professional setting for fear of being judged and encountering professional repercussions.
● Discouraged from family responsibilities
Just as women who seek to find work/life balance struggle, men who prioritise family obligations are perceived to lack professional commitment, availability or ambition. Research from Eurofound noted that “cultural norms and perceptions about gender roles in child rearing” served as a disincentive for men to take parental leave in the European Union.
So why aren’t they taking the leave they’re entitled to? Why aren’t expectant fathers demanding time off to care for their families? Alexis Ohanian, Serena Williams’ husband, examined this in an article for the New York Times when his wife suffered a pulmonary embolism during child birth.
He believes the problem is related to “career fear.” It is about the stigma of breaking away from male coded values and the need to be seen as a “provider.” A recent study conducted at PL+US, a national paid-leave advocacy group, found that 84 percent of expectant fathers plan to take leave. However, only half of these men believe their employer supports them. Nearly a third of fathers think that taking paternity leave could negatively impact their career. Men believe they could “miss out on a promotion,” “become obsolete,” or lose their jobs.
Are men encouraged to take equal responsibility for children?
In the EU there are still 15 Member States where a majority believe it is the role of the woman to take care of the household and children. Only 10 EU countries have a period of leave reserved for fathers. But even in these countries, this entitlement can often be transferred to mothers. Will the right to disconnect become a much sought after corporate benefit? Or will we see a corporate exodus as individuals seek to protect their health and wellbeing? As we are seeing in some countries, employees are now being protected against after-hours intrusion and demands by employers. It is probably now needed for senior, highly educated ones as well.
It’s clear that to achieve a less male-coded workplace, households and families need increased male participation. It’s not just a workplace issue. It seems we still have a long way to go.
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