Note to working men: Don’t be nice, don’t show empathy, don’t be vulnerable, don’t be modest, don’t be a feminist and don’t you dare cry. Put another way, just don’t do anything that someone may interpret as characteristic of a good human, unless you want to lose out. That’s according to a recent report in the Harvard Business Review, which states that men who don’t fit their gender stereotype at work (which for men, basically amounts to “jerk”) are penalized for straying from their societal jerkish duty.
“Research demonstrates that men too face backlash when they don’t adhere to masculine gender stereotypes — when they show vulnerability, act nicer, display empathy, express sadness, exhibit modesty and proclaim to be feminists,” writes David Mayer in his report in the Harvard Business Review.
Mayer tells me that he became interested in the topic of gender stereotypes in the workplace after seeing a lot of research on the way gender stereotypes are hurting women. “When women behave in ways that don’t fit their gender stereotype — for example, by being assertive — they’re viewed as less likable and ultimately less hirable,” he writes in his report for HBR. “I just felt like the conversation isn’t as detailed on how gender stereotypes affect men as well,” says Mayer. “If we’re trying to have the right type of guy at work, why is it that we’re penalizing men for behavior that society really wants and behavior that makes anyone be more effective?”
To that end, Mayer points to the research on humility in the workplace, and how it’s actually beneficial. “If men get disparaged for not having all the right answers, then this is a problem — they’ll be more likely to not ask for direction and that’s not really good for anybody.”
Additionally, Mayer says that research on agreeableness — which generally speaking, he says, is a gender stereotype more likely to be associated with women — shows that men tend to be penalized for being more communal. “Men make less money over the course of their career if they appear to be more agreeable,” says Mayer. To his point, earlier this year, I wrote about a study out of Copenhagen that found that more agreeable men — that is, men more likely to help others and be friendly — have significantly less earnings than their less agreeable counterparts. “The man who is very agreeable (in the top 20 percent) will earn about $270,000 less over a lifetime than the average man,” wrote study author Miriam Gensowski in her article, which was also published in the Harvard Business Review.
Mayer believes the reason why both men and women are punished for acting out of gender is because it violates some sort of prescription for how men are supposed to behave. “Men get penalized for being sad,” says Mayer. “The same is true for women who get penalized for being angry. It sucks for both of them on that front.”
So if it sucks for both men and women, why can’t we just change things so that it sucks less? Mayer says that the big challenge is formulating a way to get wealthy white men in positions of power to hear a message about diversity and inclusion, without it feeling like a threat or an attack. To help, he suggests a data-backed approach that shows why it’s good for their company for men to be more vulnerable, empathetic, communal and less stoic. “We have lots of data that shows this,” says Mayer. “We have this weird paradox where who we expect to emerge as a leader tends to exhibit much more stereotypically masculine qualities — strong, dominant, assertive. But when we look at leader effectiveness, there’s something called the female leader advantage, which is basically that leaders who have more stereotypically feminine qualities are more effective as leaders.”
Mayer concedes, however, that a data-driven approach isn’t enough. “I think telling men to be ‘more feminine,’ wording it that way is a losing case,” he says. “In my experience, the worst thing you could call a man is feminine. That’s not a good way to get the men to change.”
A better method, Mayer tells me, is to incorporate these qualities into what it actually means to be masculine. “You could play into masculine stereotypes about being a protector or a provider. I think making these attributes seem like they’re a part of being male would be more effective.”
Put another way, the only way to convince men — specifically wealthy, white men in positions of power — that they’ll benefit if they change is to speak the sort of language that doesn’t threaten them. “[It’s] emotional intelligence that’s less threatening to men,” says Mayer. “Naming those characteristics and providing a behavior display of what it would look like to be compassionate is more effective. I think men are fine with those terms and could more easily see why that’s the right thing to do and how it can help them be more successful.”
So that’s the dance: Don’t label it feminine, and focus on specific behavior displays and why they’re actually effective.
Probably best not to call it a dance, either…