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Studies Show Men Get Penalized for Not Holding to Masculine Norms in the Office

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people face workplace discrimination.  When women behave in ways that don’t fit their gender stereotype they are viewed as less likable and ultimately less hirable.  Does that same hold true for men – be they heterosexual, hetero-flexible, openly gay or closeted at work?

Are men similarly penalized for straying from the strong masculine stereotype?  Yes – Simply being perceived as kind, mildly effeminate or otherwise not macho masculine or claim their feminism outlook they can have a similar discriminating result for male heterosexuals too.  Some characteristics in men that are perceived as effeminate are letting others know they stand with feminism, being a nice guy, displaying vulnerability, showing empathy toward others, expressing sadness and being modest.   These all sound like great behaviors right?   A study by the University of Surrey uncovered that just by the way someone appears and the sound of their voice, anyone, male or female can face being less likely to be hired, paid less, and not promoted. – regardless of the actual sexual orientation of the person.   This can be a problem at work for the person’s career and the advancement of the company because it discourages men from behaving in ways known to benefit their teams and productivity.

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Let break down the traits

Being a feminist or feminine.  A large number of American men self-identify as feminist. Disturbingly, research shows that feminist men are more likely to be the victims of sexual harassment — in the forms of being the recipient of unwanted sexual advances to being told inappropriate jokes. In addition, research shows that when they work in male-dominated jobs and are perceived as too feminine men are more likely to be harassedResearch finds that men who ask for family leave, are viewed as less competent workers and are far less likely to be recommended for rewards or promotion, compared to women who take family leave.

Being a nice guy – Generally, no one likes a hostile work environment.  No one wants to work with an overbearing offensive prick right?  So we’d assume that being nice at work would be a great thing.  Nope.  Research has found that men who are warm, supportive of others, caring of others and sympathetic toward others earned significantly less money than more stereotypically masculine men to the tune of an average of 18% less in income and were evaluated as less likely to have management potential as compared to less agreeable men.  These same “good guys” were evaluated as less competent and less hirable for managerial roles. One experimental study found that male managers in consulting who tended to advocate more for their team than for themselves were judged to be lower in agency and competence and more likely to be considered for job dismissal.  Being a nice guy at work doesn’t pay and can get put them in the hunt for a new job.  This is also supported by the University of Surrey study noted above.  This seems counterproductive for the individual, teams and company bottom line.

Showing vulnerability – Men from early childhood are often taught to “be a man” – don’t cry, don’t ask for help or otherwise demonstrate vulnerability.  A set of studies from 2015 finds that when male (but not female) leaders ask for help, they are viewed as less competent, capable, and confident.  And when men make themselves vulnerable by disclosing a weakness at work, they are perceived to have lower status.  Not seeking help when you need it or admitting areas for improvement inevitably leads to mistakes, less career development, non-functional teams, and reduces the success of the projects and overall company success.

Expressing sadness/crying – American men are brought up to be to be unemotional.  Research shows that men who show sadness at work are thought of as less deserving of that emotion as compared to sad women.  No one wants to get so upset and distraught at work to the point of crying.  But for men – it can really cost them.  A study from 2017 found that men who cry at work are perceived as more emotional and less competent than women who cry.  If a man cries in response to employee performance review, they are rated as a lower performer, less likely to get promoted, and less capable as compared to women who cry in that situation.  While we don’t want men or women regularly crying at work, an authentic work environment has to allow all employees to experience the same emotions equally without negative repercussion.

Being empathic – Empathy is an important part of being a great leader. However, women are more likely to receive “credit” for it than men. A recent study found that female leaders who displayed empathy were less likely to be in danger of career derailment. In fact, for women, it can help in their career.  Men, however, do not reap the same benefits — there was no relationship between a man’s leadership empathy and their manager considering that as a factor for advancement.  These findings are far-reaching because displaying empathy is critical for leading effectively.  Empathy impacts team and client/customer success and so company success.

Exhibiting modesty – “Dude, you are just being modest.”  Research demonstrates that men who are more humble in conveying their personal success and qualifications were evaluated as less likeable, less likely to succeed, and weaker than similarly qualified modest women. Similarly, men in the interview process men who had similar qualification as others yet were more modest were evaluated by potential employers as lower in skill and ability, and less desirable to hire. Women who displayed similar qualifications and also modest faired better in the job hunt.  With the increasing awareness of the detrimental effects of narcissism at work, we should encourage men’s modesty rather than penalize it.

Can Corporations Halt the Attack on Good Guys?

Companies have a huge benefit in changing the work culture and supporting positive male behaviors.  It supports individual career growth, improves team dynamics, gender equality and success and company performance.  So what can company and organization leaders do?

Be broad and inclusive when training about gender stereotypes. Diversity training often evokes skepticism from employees, especially men. One way to address this issue is to focus on how gender stereotypes about women and men impact expectations for how they should behave. Given that white men are more likely to feel defensive when organizations provide diversity training, highlighting how men and women are both victims of gender stereotypes can help invoke compassion from all trainees.

Do not “gender police.” Gender policing means imposing normative gender expressions in terms of behavior or appearance. Research shows that trying to make men adhere to gender norms, for example, in terms of attire, is detrimental in terms of allowing men to fully express themselves at work.  When people can be themselves, it creates a place that will attract and retain top talent.

Encourage male positive behaviors. It is important for company leadership to accept and encourage positive behavior to create a safe and welcoming workspace.  For example,  the hiring process is a great place to start.  In addition, given the many benefits of humility, companies and organization should create a culture where men who are humble are praised.  Perhaps setting a “Humble Hero” quarterly employee to recognize those that make do outstanding work yet aren’t shouting about it themselves.  Organizational leaders can champion men in the organization by telling stories about how their vulnerability helped the organization perform better.


Companies can greatly benefit from changing it’s work culture to support a contemporary view, acceptance, and express of masculinity while still maintaining traditional expressions of masculinity such as assertiveness, responsibility, and competitiveness allowing each person to be their full selves.  This will further support gender equality and everyone thrive.

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About the author: Dennis Velco Verified icon 1
An LGBTQ social entrepreneur who focuses on strengthening the global LGBTQ+ through connecting, engaging, online, and in person.

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