4 Signs Your Office Has a Toxic 'Masculinity Contest' Culture — And 2 Ways To Fight Back

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Taylor Tobin1.84k

Toxic workplace cultures can present themselves in countless ways, but one of the most infuriating (and, unfortunately, the most ubiquitous) involves the development of a gendered, non-inclusive environment that discourages positive collaboration between colleagues. 

The Harvard Business Review recently exposed the tendency of some companies to reward employees for aggressive, overtly competitive behavior, to prioritize physical stamina even for white-collar positions, and to paint anyone who chooses to opt out of these activities as “weak”. HBR calls this a “masculinity contest culture”, and because these companies place enormous emphasis on stereotypically-male traits to the detriment of those who don’t relate to this very narrow concept of “manly” prowess, it results in alienation and, ultimately, a lack of diversity among employees. 

How do you know whether you’re working for a “masculinity contest” company? HBR put forth these 4 warning signs:

1. Your workplace frowns upon “signs of weakness.”

In perhaps the most egregious example of gender-based assumptions, “masculinity contest” cultures seek to actively squash emotional sensitivity. These workplaces also frown upon those who openly admit their mistakes, instead encouraging employees to “stand their ground” and never display signs of doubt. Obviously, these attitudes result in inter-office dysfunction, with coworkers refusing to take responsibility for their errors and bosses refusing to initiate open dialogues about challenging situations.

2. The company touts “strength and stamina” as desirable traits for employees.

While physical strength and endurance shouldn’t be prerequisites for office work, “masculinity contest” cultures emphasize them anyway, pressuring employees to work extreme hours and rewarding those who push themselves to their limits. 

3. Your bosses expect you to prioritize work above all other facets of your life.

While high-functioning workplaces universally expect strong commitment levels from their employees, “masculinity contest” cultures take the idea of “dedication” to an unhealthy level. According to HBR, these companies represent “workplaces where nothing outside the organization (e.g., family) can interfere with work, where taking a break or a leave represents an impermissible lack of commitment.”

4. Your workplace encourages aggressive competition among colleagues.

There’s nothing wrong with encouraging a competitive spirit in the workplace (within reason, of course). But “masculinity contest” cultures favor a ruthless and aggressive approach, placing individual achievements at a premium without considering the implications for the office and the company as a whole. 

“Masculinity contest” work environments aren’t as widespread as they were a generation ago, but they’re by no means fully extinct, and efforts to abolish them entirely must continue. If these traits sound consistent with your workplace culture, you’re not powerless; these 2 steps can help move your company in the direction of reform. 

1. Keep the focus on the company’s mission.

Whether you work for a corporation or for a non-profit organization, your company has a mission statement, articulating the goals and pursuits that all employees should work toward. Encouraging your staff and your colleagues to hone in on the mission will open up a conversation about inclusivity and abolish the toxic “masculinity” that stands in the way of progress. As HBR puts it: “Effective interventions require authentic and meaningful connections to core organizational values and goals.”

2. Don’t let your company believe that “everyone” is okay with these attitudes and behaviors. 

As with any toxic work culture, “masculinity contest” environments are allowed to continue when the company learns to shrug them off and accept them as “just the way things are around here." However, there’s no reason to turn a blind eye to dysfunctional workplace behavior, and actively pushing back (especially if you’re in a more senior position) will make a difference. “Leaders can remedy this misperception by publicly rejecting masculinity contest norms and empowering others to voice their previously secret dissent. But they also need to walk the talk by changing reward systems, modeling new behavior, and punishing the misconduct previously overlooked or rewarded,” HBR explains.