Send to Kindle

In a recent workshop on “gender” diversity, I was planning to ask the male participants if and how “gender” bias affected them. Before I got to that part, a male executive gave the punch line. In the next workshop, I set aside time for the men to respond to this question. Several confirmed what the man in the earlier workshop had said. But one man went further; he talked about how it felt, which was just what women report feeling when confronted with this bias. These men validated a hypothesis I’ve been thinking about.

In my workshops, I make it clear that we are not talking about “gender” differences. It makes no sense to say that men and women are from different planets! I frame the issues as about differences on a masculine-feminine continuum and note that men and women operate all along that continuum. Some men are more “feminine” than some women, and some women are more “masculine” than some men. “Gender” diversity and “gender” bias, it follows, are not really about men and women.

“Gender” bias is very rarely bias against women. Particularly in the world of work, there is a bias for masculine ways of thinking, acting and leading – and a bias against (or at least less regard for) the feminine counterparts in style or approach. My hypothesis, based on this premise, is that men as well as women in the workplace are caught up in the gravitational pull of the masculine style.

We know that women often adopt a masculine style in order to “fit in” and succeed. My hypothesis is that men feel a similar pressure to be “masculine” – and fear a “feminine” approach won’t be seen as leadership or will be seen as weak. The result is a “doubling down” on the masculine nature of the workplace; it becomes more masculine, not more balanced.

Enlightened theories of leadership (e.g., The Athena Doctrine and Shakti Leadership) have advocated that leaders must employ feminine as well as masculine strengths. But I am concerned that this theory is not commonly in practice – in part because of the pressure for both men and women to be masculine. This pressure makes men as well as women less free to bring all their strengths to work. Conforming takes energy from both women and men – energy that would be better put to use on work projects!

When I posed the question, how does “gender” bias affect men, I expected that the men would point to some obvious answers. They did. They noted that men share in the loss of known benefits of gender diversity (higher profits, better decisions, and innovation). They talked about the impact of “gender” bias on their daughters, wives or sisters. (Men with daughters seem to care more about gender diversity.) But some responses took the question further, addressing my hypothesis.

Several men each shared that he had at times felt forced to work and lead in a masculine way – even when he sensed that a different approach (which we had by then identified as a “feminine” approach) would be more natural or more effective. You might have thought I had paid these men to make my point, or prove my hypothesis.

In the second workshop, the participant who described how it felt said, “It is so exhausting.” Wow! He spends energy performing to a masculine standard of leadership. He pays a personal price, just as many women do performing to that standard. If my hypothesis is right, many men and women do this and pay this price. And our organizations pay a bigger price – the loss of authenticity, wholeness, and engagement — and the absence of true diversity. If everyone is performing to a masculine standard, “gender” doesn’t bring diversity!

Please let me know what you think of my hypothesis. Have you felt you must perform in a masculine way?