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- avivah wittenberg-cox from Harvard Business Review

Rethinking What Masculinity Means at the Office

“I didn’t really identify with this group or this culture at all,” said a man in a recent leadership development session I was running. He was standing among a group of male colleagues, to discuss what it was like to be a man today. “I really don’t like the jockeying for position, the loud voices, the false cheeriness,” he explained. The executive facing him — ex-military, 6’5” — looked astonished. “That’s all we were ever taught to do,” he said, “Take a position and hold it.”

The range of styles among these men was vast, but their awkwardness at trying to explore it was shared. They had trouble looking at each other, listening, asking questions. Visually, you could see them struggle to coalesce as a simple circle – even though, I couldn’t help noticing, they looked remarkably similar; most of them wore nearly identical blue button-down shirts.

Next to them, a group of women — who had also only met that morning — had no such trouble. Instantaneously, they had their heads down in a tight circle. I could hear them laughing and digging deeper into their subject, with relish. I was reminded of research from Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Union College that found that teams with more women often perform better. In follow-up studies, the researchers concluded that this was because women are better at reading their teammates’ emotions, which is a hallmark of high-performing teams. The women in front of me could have been pulled from that lab: they were very comfortable expressing their differences, using a wide spectrum of behaviors, styles, and ways of communicating.

As an expert in gender issues, it is fascinating to see three conversations taking place in the world at the same time: the push for continued progress for women, the exploding of gender identities, and the crisis among boys. Although these often feel like separate conversations, each with their own partisans, they are all related. At the center of the Venn diagram is a reaction to the rigidity of traditional masculinity.

The landscape has changed…

Women today continue their hugely successful and world-shifting push for equality. They are now the majority of the educated graduating classes in almost every country. While the wage gap persists at the top, young women now out-earn young men. Paid maternity leave is now the norm in every developed nation except the United States.

At the same time, the world is exploding into a whole series of discussions around gender identity, and new pronouns and usages are entering the mainstream lexicon. Facebook allows users to identify as one of 51 genders. It’s a rejection of a pink and blue world that some companies (not to mention some politicians) would love to keep us locked into. (A recent Twitter frenzy around pink and blue earplugs was the only the latest example of a deep frustration with lucrative stereotypes.)

Meanwhile, the news about boys is worrying. The design of K-12 education and the predominance of female teachers in such schools is leading boys to underperform. Teenage boys have a suicide rate 4 times higher than teenage girls. Young men are now a fast-dropping minority in higher education. And while men still, on average, earn more than women do, part of the reason the pay gap has narrowed in recent years is that men’s earnings have declined.

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