Toxic masculinity has shaped many modern-day workplaces for the worse.

Executive Brief

  • Researchers say a kind of “masculinity contest” continues to war on in corporate America, resulting in employees competing to be the “strongest” or most “masculine.”
  • But these kind of contests rarely benefit companies, or even teams.
  • Workplaces that promote “dog eat dog” or “put work first” attitudes are usually most susceptible to this kind of culture.

  • In some offices, “dog eat dog” and “work-first” attitudes are heralded and rewarded, and aggression is still viewed as a sign of worthy leadership.

    These are vestiges of a bygone era when men dominated the workforce. But this kind of masculinity contest isn’t good for anyone.

    “It’s not about succeeding at whatever the work mission is, it’s about me winning and me proving I’m the winner by showing these dominant traits,” says Peter Glick, professor of psychology at Lawrence University. “It becomes so much a part of proving you’re the ‘man.’ That becomes the central thing.”

    Workplaces that promote “show no weakness” attitudes are usually the ones most susceptible to a culture of competition among its employees, Glick says.

    Who wins and who loses

    Very few people benefit from these toxic systems, says Glick.

    Research shows women are set up to “lose” in these scenarios. Women may attempt to compete in the “put work first” contest at the office, but those efforts are often undermined since they are also typically responsible for a disproportionate amount of caregiving and emotional labor, both at work and home.

    Even if a woman can attempt to compete, however, by either undercutting male colleagues or demonstrating masculinity in the same ways they do, colleagues often don’t respond well. They might applaud a more aggressive man as a leader, but view her in a negative light.

    “Women are forced to conform as well, but they get this mixed message, the backlash for doing it,” Glick says. “They’re in the gladiatorial arena and you have to pick up a weapon, but you’re hamstrung from the start, so you’re hobbled.”

    But men struggle, too.

    “Not everyone is just really testosterone-driven and has that style,” says Janine Yancey, CEO of Emtrain, a workplace training company. “If there’s no path to take a different, more collaborative style, then that’s exclusive for men, too. If they feel like they can’t succeed unless they’re president of the frat house, pretty much, then what opportunities does that present for them?”

    In these kinds of offices, men who are perceived as more masculine will target other men, even mocking them if they take parental leave or ridiculing actions they perceive as “weak” behavior, says Jennifer Berdahl, professor of leadership studies at the University of British Columbia.

    “Men were saying they did not feel like they were ‘man enough’ if they took care of their kids or left work early to go to the doctor, or showed other physical signs of ‘non-manhood,’ like long hair or wearing an earring,” Berdahl says.

    Glick says workplaces where employees compete to see who works the most hours are a particular problem.

    Ultimately, he points out, no one is the “winner” in a company where everyone stays at work longer than they realistically should. But in that kind of culture, where the person staying latest is seen as the one working hardest, people do it as a show of strength. Leaving before someone else would be calculated as a sign of weakness, one that could ultimately cost you a promotion or other reward.

    Detoxifying the culture

    Competing against other employees within the company also distracts from a more important goal: surpassing competitors in the industry.

    “Business is tough and if you have ‘dog eat dog’ competition going on in the organization, that ‘I’m the winner,’ that zero-sum game — that’s the core of the contest, rather than committing to competition in the marketplace,” Glick says.

    But a culture built on “precarious masculinity,” as Berdahl calls it, can’t be corrected with a temporary fix.

    “When you’ve got these ‘bro cultures’ you’ll see it takes a change in management,” Yancey says. “We’re seeing some organizations try to change their culture now and it’s really difficult, because once a culture is in place, then you’re stuck. Then you’ve got this whole new initiative to basically change a culture, and unfortunately it takes transitioning out a big section of the workforce and the people in the workforce to really start changing.”

    What companies instead have to do is take a hard look at their rewards systems, Glick says. In a system that rains accolades on very specific things — say, the person who stayed the latest versus the person who submitted the best work — people learn to value what wins them acclaim.

    “You can’t drop a diversity training into ‘Game of Thrones’ and expect it’s going to get better,” Glick says. “That’s not going to happen. You need to address the underlying, fundamental culture and expose it.”