Why toxic ideas of masculinity are bad for all employees

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Essentially, ‘toxic’ masculinity is an archaic perception of what it means to be a man. (Getty)

Many workplaces are still dominated by toxic ideas of masculinity. In some offices, ruthlessly competitive and often aggressive ‘cut-throat’ attitudes prevail – and are even seen as a standard for success in the business world.

According to research by the Equality Group, a consultancy that helps companies attract, retain and develop diverse workers, 21% of Brits state that their workplace environment is dominated by a masculine culture that makes it harder for women to professionally and socially progress.

“Toxic masculinity is a term used to describe exaggerated behaviours that one would normally associate with male actions, such as being overly competitive or overly aggressive in how one deals with other people, and being denying of most emotions,” explains Kate Cooper, head of research, policy and standards at The Institute of Leadership & Management. “At its most extreme, it also will involve denigrating anything that isn't masculine and therefore anything that one would associate with femininity.”

Essentially, ‘toxic’ masculinity is an archaic perception of what it means to be a man. Certain gendered norms include appearing ‘tough’ and ignoring weakness or vulnerability.

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“Women are affected by this in two main ways – firstly, they tend to be excluded from selection and promotion opportunities because they aren't manifesting the behaviours associated with good leadership. Secondly, they are encouraged to emulate these male behaviours in order to progress,” Cooper says.

“It manifests itself in a leadership context when we look at words that tend to be associated with leaders, which one also associates with male behaviours,” she explains. “So they will be things such as being decisive, confident and courageous – words with strong male associations. 

A work environment where leadership is seen in these very male, very gendered ways, often excludes women in that workplace, Cooper adds. “It is also often given as an explanation for why women don't progress into so many management and leadership positions, as what constitutes a good leader is something that one associates so much with male behaviour.”

For the first time since the London Stock Exchange was established in 1571, the FTSE 350 has 30% of board positions filled by women. The latest data from the 30% Club, which encourages greater representation of women on boards, shows that 903 directorships are held by women out of 3,008 positions in total. Although this is progress, there is still a long way to go to reach equality.

This, in part, is due to the fact that male dominated workplace cultures are both a cause and a consequence of the lack of gender equality at management and board levels yet is often overlooked.

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“Recently published research in the Harvard Business Review, reveals that men are much more likely to promote other men because they will see in them the traits that they admire, even if this bias is unconscious,” Cooper adds. And even if a woman demonstrates “traditionally masculine” behaviour in the workplace – such as aggression or dominating a conversation – she is more likely to be viewed unfavourably, research shows.

But women are not the sole victims of toxic masculinity, men can be affected just as deeply. It can encourage men to suppress their feelings in order to fit in with these narrow expectations of masculinity. If they are not seen as domineering or aggressive when it comes to business, they may miss out on opportunities too.

“Any culture that's described as toxic cannot be beneficial,” Cooper says. “Toxic masculinity is particularly damaging to organisations because of the incredibly narrow definition of masculinity that not only excludes women, but also excludes the majority of men.”

It may also exclude people on the basis of their sexuality, gender and race, as well as people with disabilities too.

“This often manifests itself in banter that, as our research shows, can be very damaging in organisations, even when it's not intentional, much of this toxic male banter is excluding by its very nature – it could be very aggressive, it'll be hostile, it'll be competitive, it'll be quite ruthless – as those are all the sorts of traits that one associates with toxic masculinity,” Cooper says.

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Commenting on the Equality Group research, founder Hephzi Pemberton said the data is a reminder of the need for more inclusive and positive workplace cultures.

“As a society, we should be striving to stamp out harassment, bullying and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace by creating and implementing positive policies,” she says. “While the situation has almost certainly improved, there are still a number of steps that workplaces need to take to improve their working culture. Hiring in diverse talent at senior levels, in terms of women and BAME professionals, to bring new ideas to boards and leadership teams across the country can undoubtedly change working cultures for the better.”