Over the past two-plus years, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we work. Hours are more flexible, it is harder to interrupt each other over Zoom, children and pets are in the background, coworkers ask more personal questions (“Are those your grandparents in the frame on your bookcase?”), and there are fewer drinks with colleagues after work. In many ways, work has become much less masculine.
What do we mean by this?
Masculine defaults are embedded in descriptions of workplace culture (Uber’s “aggressive, unrestrained” culture), company practises that reward male-socialised behaviours (Google requires self-promotion to get ahead), and funding practises that require activities that men are more likely to participate in than women (a venture capital event with a kiteboarding prerequisite). These defaults are often put (or unwittingly fall) into place without questioning whether they are the most effective or productive way to work.
But are masculinity defaults actually necessary for an effective workplace? The evidence is now robust: Success at work requires both stereotypically masculine and feminine characteristics. As we explore below, many organisations rose in rankings, obtained more venture capital, and identified the full potential of their candidates after they reduced their masculinity defaults and revamped their workplace practises to include more feminine defaults.
The pandemic has made it clear that the way we used to work is only one way to work—not necessarily the best way to work. As we adjust to more hybrid and in-person work and rethink policies, norms, and procedures, now is the time to interrogate the way our organisations’ foundations, structures, and habitual everyday practices are saturated with masculinty defaults. Here, we discuss how masculine defaults play out in organisations, how to decide if they are necessary, and how to dismantle or counterbalance them.
How Masculine Defaults Permeate Organizations
Masculine defaults are particularly insidious because they’re harder to pin down than a more common type of workplace bias: differential treatment. Differential treatment happens when women are paid less, passed over for promotions, and harassed, or, in other words, when women can’t access certain opportunities as easily as men can.
With masculinity defaults, the doors are often presented as open for both men and women, which makes it seem like there’s equal opportunity, but the workplace rewards and favours standard stereotypically masculine characteristics and behaviours. Masculinity defaults are often less obvious than differential treatment, even though they are everywhere, embedded in organisational culture—in values, norms, policies, styles of interaction, objects, and individual beliefs. With masculinity defaults, the rules advantage many men and disadvantage many women, as well as men and non-binary people who do not display stereotypically masculine characteristics.
Importantly, masculinity defaults often differ by culture, race, and ethnicity. For example, some behaviours that are typically seen as feminine in the U.S., such as being collectivistic, are stereotyped as masculine in some Korean cultures. Black women are often rendered invisible in a society that sees the default person as white and the default black person as a man.
So, why do masculinity defaults disadvantage many women and others who may not ascribe to the masculine ideal? And why can’t women simply learn these rules and follow them like many men do? We see three key reasons.
First, men and women are often socialised differently. Many women have had fewer opportunities than men to practise behaviours deemed masculine because they are not socialised to have, or see themselves as having, stereotypically masculine characteristics. For example, organisations that embed masculine defaults in their recruiting processes may find it harder to attract people who are not socialised to display these characteristics. When Made by Many, a digital product design company, changed its job ad for a senior designer from looking for someone who was “unreasonably talented” and “driven” to someone who was “deeply excited by the opportunity of creating thoughtful digital products that have lasting impact,” the percentage of women in the application pool went up from 15% to 35%.
Second, even when women display stereotypically masculine characteristics, they are often not recognised as having them. In a study on venture capital pitches, for example, female and male actors were trained to have identical pitches in content and style of delivery. However, raters perceived the women’s pitches as less fundable than the men’s. Men’s pitches were rated as significantly more “fact-based,” “logical,” and “persuasive” than women’s pitches.
And finally, when stereotypically masculine characteristics are recognised in women, they can face backlash or punishment when they are deemed to be “too masculine.” For instance, women enrolled in a professional development programme in 2013 reported feeling pressure to tone down their contributions and moderate their strong personalities to avoid negative feedback and professional consequences from their male colleagues.
Backlash for violating gender stereotypes differs across racial groups, too. What is considered masculine behaviour for white women may be very different for other women. Black women, for instance, may not face the same backlash that white women and black men face for some behaviours consistent with masculine defaults, such as being assertive. Yet Black women still walk a tightrope: The “angry black woman” stereotype hinders Black women’s performance evaluations and ability to get promoted. In other words, the backlash faced by women of colour often occurs at different times and in different forms than the backlash faced by white women.
How Can You Eliminate or Counterbalance Masculine Defaults?
Although masculine defaults run deep, they can be remedied. In the early 2000s, for example, Harvey Mudd College’s computer science department graduated less than 10% women. The same department graduated 55% women less than a decade later.They achieved this in part by analysing their masculinity defaults and changing them.
Below are some of the steps they took. After we outline each, we’ll offer an example of how you might use them in your own organisation as you negotiate in-person, hybrid, and remote work.
Identify masculine defaults. Start by asking people at various levels of the organisation to list as many elements of the culture (both formal and informal) as possible. These lists can be further supplemented with the organisation’s mission and values, policies, meeting dynamics, and language used in workplace chats. Next, compare the various elements of your culture that emerge with lists of stereotypically masculine behaviours and characteristics.
Determine their necessity. Ask: Are the masculine defaults identified in step one necessary? That is, is it essential to the survival of the organisation or too foundational to change? This could entail having leaders ask themselves whether they could change the masculine default and continue to be viable, or doing a short-term experiment where the masculine default is altered to see whether it is necessary.
As you start to find, break down, and balance the masculine defaults in your organisation, keep in mind that even companies with the best of intentions can fall into some common traps.
Believing that removing gender information is enough. Unfortunately, just treating all genders equally or removing gender information from applications isn’t enough on its own. Studies have shown that blinding reviewers to name and gender information doesn’t prevent them from selecting candidates who adhere to masculine defaults.
Fighting masculine defaults with masculine defaults Some gender equality initiatives can actually exacerbate masculine defaults. In 2014, Google’s required self-nomination process for promotion caused women to get promoted at a lower rate than men. A head of engineering thought he solved the problem by reminding women to nominate themselves in an email.This strategy caused more women to self-nominate, but sending these emails reinforced the stereotypically masculine value of promoting oneself and asked women to conform to it.
3. Seeing masculine defaults as culturally “good.” Remember, masculine defaults are just that: defaults, which are often coded as good or standard behaviour in Western industrialised nations like the U.S. This overlap makes masculine defaults more difficult to identify and root out because many people perceive them as generally good rather than reflecting and benefiting a subset of the population.