What Do Women’s Advancement and the Sandy Hook Massacre Have In Common? More Than You Might Think

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Women have earned the majority of bachelor’s and master’s degrees for more than 30 years. They’ve represented over 40% of law school and medical school graduates for more than two decades. Women are the majority of the management and professional workforce in the U.S.

Yet, they account for only 25% of senior-level officials in the Fortune 500, 27% of state and federal judges and less than a fifth of law-firm partners, as well as only 22% of tenured medical school professors. In every industry and profession, a gender wage gap exists. Despite numerous efforts to eliminate barriers to women’s advancement, substantive progress remains elusive. At the present rates of change, reaching parity for women in senior leadership roles will take over 70 years!

December 14th, 2012 marked an epic tragedy in the U.S. A deeply-troubled young man shot dead 20 kindergartners and first graders, six of their teachers and administrators, and his own mother before turning the gun on himself. While the tragic act defies explanation, we do know from many sources that the shooter was a socially-isolated and emotionally-troubled young man.

What could these seemingly disparate situations – women’s persistent lack of equality in organizations and the carnage of a violent young man - have in common? The answer relates to norms of masculinity. It relates to how males are socialized and how masculinity is defined. These masculine norms manifest in ways that not only hurt girls and women but also hurt boys and men. And let me be very clear that it is not men or masculinity itself but elements of the masculinity code that are the problem.

As a diversity consultant for more than two decades, my work has been focused on creating work environments where women, and men, can thrive. I was extraordinarily excited to elect our first woman president, a pioneer who not only paved the way for so many women, but also a candidate whose policy priorities were closely aligned with the priorities of working women, and many men.

On the morning of November 9th, my heart felt broken. It was broken not only because we had failed to elect our first woman presidential candidate - an incredibly competent, caring person - but also because we had elected a man who represented the very worst aspects of the masculinity code - arrogance, immaturity, entitlement, selfishness, obsession with competition and winning, indifference, and just plain cruelty. Serendipitously on that morning after the election, I was attending a two-day workshop on Healthy Masculinity in New London Connecticut. I told the group that there was absolutely nowhere else I would rather have been on that very sad day.

Exploring Masculinity

President Obama, in response to the Newtown tragedy, allocated federal monies to fund the Connecticut Strong Initiative which was aimed at supporting healing and combatting violence. As part of the initiative the Child & Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut, working on the front lines to support healthy families and communities, partnered with MERGE for Equality.

MERGE is a non-profit providing education and consulting to social service providers, educators and state and local organizations. MERGE developed the healthy masculinity workshop and describes their mission as engaging people and communities in transforming masculinity to advance gender equality. They are part of a large, international community of male advocates and partners working to support gender equality through eradicating violence against women and encouraging men to be highly involved fathers.

Working to drive change in the workplace, I was delighted to learn about MERGE’s work driving change around gender equality in a different sphere. The more I learned about MERGE’s work, the more I saw the connections between their goal of transforming masculinity and my corporate diversity work seeking to evolve work cultures that stymie the professional progress of women [and others facing obstacles related to race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, etc. ]

The partnership between the Child & Family Agency and MERGE is focused on healing and moving to action. They articulate the journey as, helping the community to come together, recover from trauma and journey to health, unpack stereotypes, connect and build on strengths, and become roles models for social change. The Child & Family Agency has sought to build community networks and create bridges to support services for youth moving into young adulthood. As part of a multi-pronged effort, a training workshop on healthy masculinity for professionals working with youth was delivered in the spring of 2016.

The workshop I attended on November 9th was targeted at teens and young adults, many with challenging family situations. It focused on educating the youth about healthy masculinity and empowering them to become change agents in their communities.

Early in the workshop, participants were asked to strike a pose that resembled the men and boys in their lives and to describe what that felt like. Descriptions of tight and guarded came ushering forth. We discussed stereotypes that come to mind when hearing the command Be a Man and the list was long. While some were positive such as hard working, smart, or strong, many more of the descriptions were problematic: cold-hearted, egotistical, unable to cry, entitled and aggressive.

In small group discussions, the youth discussed their personal experiences with challenging aspects of masculinity. They talked about the difficulty of getting close to someone who doesn’t show their emotions and the need to prove to their romantic interests that they were ‘not a jerk’ like a lot of other guys. One brave young man shared how he cried in middle school after his girlfriend broke up with him but when he looked up to see the faces of his friends, he immediately stopped crying. The message was clear: sadness not allowed.

The code of masculinity powerfully informs how boys and men behave and it is clear to males that not conforming to masculine norms comes with high social costs. What is far less clear is how the privileges of masculinity, at their apex for white men, are accompanied by costs that are unseen and rarely validated.

At the center of the masculinity code is the need for men to be in control – or at least appear in control – at all times coupled with a drive to improve their relative station in the perceived hierarchies of life [e.g. intelligence, athletic skill, money, power, sexual attractiveness, etc.] Being vulnerable is anathema; the goal is to appear fearless or as the country crooners sing, bulletproof. The masculinity code dictates a very narrow range of acceptable emotions. As described by a teen boy at the workshop, the options are “happy, angry, or nothing.”

The sense of competition and drive to control transform into a constant vigilance, an awareness to ensure someone else is not getting the upper hand. As a teenage boy, this may mean being acutely aware of any guy who pays too much attention to your girlfriend while as a successful middle-age business man this may mean an acute awareness of who’s in the running for a promotion or which neighbor has the new expensive toy [e.g. car, golf clubs, …]

The tragedy of the masculinity code is that it leaves far too many men feeling isolated and alone, unwilling or unable to reach out and connect, even when they most need support. One need look no further than the elevated suicide rates [nearly 4X that of women], the lower likelihood of regular medical check-ups, or the greater incidence of untreated mental health issues, particularly depression.

The Code of Masculinity Shapes Work Cultures

I don’t think I have ever conducted employee research for a client company where women did not identify their work cultures as a primary obstacle to their professional success. This manifests in the form of stereotypes about their skills and priorities, exclusion from important networks, and the need to meet higher standards than their male colleagues, among other ways.

Whether in financial services or hi-tech, academia or law, medicine or manufacturing, the overarching message is always the same: in important ways the work environment just doesn’t fit. I see work cultures that are misaligned with what women value, how women operate, and how women define success. Their need to continuously adapt not only feels exhausting but also makes it difficult for them to perform at their best.

Let’s look at common examples that illustrate different norms in how men and women tend to behave in the workplace. It’s important to note that I am describing patterns I have observed over many years in my consulting and research but I am not implying these descriptions characterize every man and every women. Instead, I am describing an archetype (a typical example or recurring theme as in literature) not a stereotype (a fixed pattern held by all members of a group.)

Men exhibit many behaviors that relate to increasing their relative status in the hierarchy. It is a common lament from professional women that they do not feel heard in meetings. They find their male colleagues interrupt them, talk over them and can talk endlessly, sometimes condescendingly, seeking to explain. It’s humorously called Mansplaining. Men are known to oversell themselves, transforming a basic familiarity with a subject matter into expertise or involvement on a project into leading the charge. We know from research that men respond to job opportunities for which they have approximately 60% of the desired qualifications, in comparison to women who are shooting for close to 100%.

Men seek to negotiate from a position of power, bluffing if necessary to give the impression that they have the upper hand. Working long hours often seems a display of machismo, a show of how only those who are man enough can do this job. Men tend to be oriented toward action and decision making because they see decisiveness as a show of strength.

Women Beat To a Different Drummer

Now let’s rewind the tape and look at how women’s socialization results in far different behaviors and norms. Unlike men’s inclination toward assessing and improving their position in the hierarchy, women tend to be oriented toward equality and making others feel included. Instinctually many women work to minimize differences and often share vulnerabilities as a way to level the playing field.

Women are far more likely to defer if someone else is speaking rather than escalating to demonstrate their dominance. They are socialized to be humble and many find it challenging to ‘sell themselves,’ instead preferring to quietly demonstrate their competence. They perceive mastery [or near mastery] is necessary to be qualified for a job and they tend to be modest in describing their achievements. Men’s style of negotiation – often focused on power differentials – can feel puzzling and potentially harmful. Women tend to prioritize building relationships. They seek connection through sharing information and identifying common experiences.

Women tend to be pragmatic about work, willing to work very hard to do what needs to be done, yet far less comfortable with the showmanship around work effort. Given their role as the primary caregiver in many families, women see time as precious, a finite resource not to be squandered. They are oriented toward efficiency, often in work environments that prize hours logged.

While men are quick to action, women favor a collaborative process that may take more time. The CEO of a company whose board of directors had changed from all men to including several women described a shift in the decision making process from binary to a more nuanced, iterative one. A proposal - and subsequent yes/ no vote – became more of a conversation as the women asked clarifying questions and envisioned other scenarios building on the original idea.

In addition to gender differences in behavioral style requiring women to adapt, they profoundly affect who is deemed ‘leadership material’ in the workplace. Ironically, women who seek to adopt a more masculine style are often punished rather than rewarded. Men tend to be promoted based on potential – by definition unproven – while women are seen as risky and promoted based on demonstrated performance. Women repeatedly report they must prove their capability, often over and over again. Despite valiant efforts to support women’s advancement, workplaces - especially those in the corporate realm – retain a deep imprint of the masculinity code.

Healthy Masculinity as a Catalyst for Change

In addition to challenging behaviors, men possess many strengths that should not go unrecognized. Most men are deeply committed to being good providers and to the well-being of their families and communities. Just last week a close friend shared the story of her husband signing up to coach her son’s baseball team [in addition to managing the league] because no one was stepping up and he didn’t want boys to be cut from the team. Most men want meaningful relationships in their lives and believe women should be treated with respect. I see men’s strong inclination to reach out and help others – whether to shovel a neighbor’s driveway or help a friend move. And their instinctual drive to protect manifests when they stop a fight or carry their dog when she is hurt.

Yet the pressure to adhere to the masculine code of behavior sadly hi-jacks men’s natural drive for caring and connection. This code - characterized by a restrictive range of acceptable emotions and by social isolation – has negative consequences for our families, our workplaces, and our communities.

It resulted in a socially-awkward and troubled teen, wanting to feel powerful and with ready access to guns, to act out violently in the face of mounting distress and forever change the lives of so many in Newtown. It remains the blueprint for corporate workplaces and organizations of all stripes, and is a formidable barrier to women’s equality in the workforce. Men’s treatment of women at work has been outwardly hostile, as in the case of sexual harassment and blatant discrimination, but both laws and evolving social norms have greatly minimized these blatant abuses of power. In my work, today the primary obstacles for women are the nuanced ways in which leaders are defined, identified, supported, and rewarded. These continue to marginalize women’s contributions and diminish their voices.

I left the two-day workshop deeply moved by the work that the Child & Family Agency and MERGE are doing to engage youth, educate them, listen and learn from them, and empower them to make positive changes in their communities and lives. It was clear that the teens and young adults in the workshop have been harmed by the masculinity code – in their friendships, families, schools, and communities.

I believe these youth who are learning about Healthy Masculinity represent a new generation of young people, both informed about the complexities of gender and committed to moving beyond the limitations of gender roles. They will be powerful change agents for realizing gender equality in their homes, workplaces, and beyond.

As the mother of sons, my deepest hope is men and women will collectively come to see how the code of masculinity hurts us all and men will see that embracing their whole selves – the strong and the weak, the happy and the sad, the giver and the given – will ultimately set them free.

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