Healthy Masculinity At Home And Work: The Battle Against Man Box Culture

Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Building a World That Works for All”

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In researching and writing about gender equality issues for over a decade, I’ve seen that something critical has been missing in much of the dialogue and that is an in-depth understanding of masculinity today. For gender equality, diversity and inclusion to become a reality in our world and organizations, we have to understand the social constructs not only of femininity but also of masculinity and how the definition of masculinity and the way in which it is enforced, impacts men’s and women’s lives, work and organizations. 

To learn more about why we need to construct masculinity in a different way, I recently caught up with keynote speaker and author Mark Greene. Greene writes and consults on relational practices, diversity/inclusion and masculinity for organizations worldwide. As a co-founder of ThinkPlay Partners and as a Senior Editor for the Good Men Project, Greene has spent over a decade deconstructing our binary-riddled dialogues around manhood and masculinity. He is uniquely positioned to help men, individually and in organizations, create a healthier more connecting vision of masculine culture and identity. 

Greene’s newest book, The Little #MeToo Book for Men has been called “a blueprint for men’s liberation.” He is the founder of the Remaking Manhood community, which is dedicated to expanding the conversation about healthy masculinity. Greene joined my Finding Brave podcast recently to explore vitally important steps toward building healthy masculinity and why as a society we need to.

Here’s what Greene shares:

Kathy Caprino: Mark, what is man box culture?

Mark Greene: In the early 1980’s, Paul Kivel and the men of the Oakland men’s project were attempting to understand why violence against women was so widespread. Kivel went to local high schools and he asked boys a simple question, “What are the rules for being a man?” All the boys gave him the same list. He conceptualized this list, which is still defining masculinity today, as the “act like a man box.”

 This means:

·        Don’t show your emotions

·        Always be tough, in control

·        Be a wage earner not a caregiver

·        Have control over women and girls

·        Be heterosexual, never homosexual

·        Never show fear, uncertainty 

·        Talk about sex, cars, sports, never anything deep

The purpose of the “act like a man box” is to police boys and men into a hierarchical, domination-based culture of masculinity, which strips us of individual authentic connection and teaches us to validate our masculinity exclusively by dominating others. Boys are trained into stoic, disconnected performances of man box masculinity beginning in infancy, first by our parents, then by our brothers and sisters, then the kids in the neighborhood, our teachers, coaches, ministers, movies, the media and so on.

Caprino: How does man box culture impact the relational development of boys and men? Our view of women?

Greene: Boys’ authentic emotional expression, empathy, ability to connect, all of the human capacities which are at the heart of forming healthy relationships are suppressed by man box culture, in favor of asserting boys’ and men’s ability to be aggressive, dominant and to control others. 

The disconnection this creates is deeply isolating, contributing to an epidemic of loneliness in the United States. In 2018, Cigna issued a study which stated nearly half (46%) of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone. 

The Centers for Disease Control reports that social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity. This includes higher levels of heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, diabetes, cancer and more.  

In man box culture, we wrongly gender emotional expression, empathy, connection, and caregiving, as feminine. We can see this when a little boy scrapes his knee at the park and starts crying, an early form of emotional expression that is forbidden by several of the rules of man box culture.

As parents, we might say to that boy, “shake it off, you’re okay.” Or we might say, “man up” and “be a man.” And if he cries a little longer, other boys might say, “What are you, a sissy? What are you, a girl?” In this way, boys and men are policed into the emotionally stoic performance of masculinity, training us into a lifetime of hiding authentic expression, thereby suppressing a basic building block of forming authentic healthy relationships.

Meanwhile, we tell girls that being tough, being a leader, being forceful looks “bossy” or “too aggressive” for women. We wrongly gender that set of natural human capacities as masculine.

In these ways, we strip away half of being human from boys (compassion, connection), and half of being human from girls (strength, leadership,) raising children who must try and succeed in the world with one arm tied behind their backs. All because of a false and damaging gender binary that seeks to enforce narrow limiting performances of being human, forcing gender non binary, gender fluid and gender expansive people into the shadows.

But it’s crucial to notice how we police boys and men. This is where the violent and abusive harm to women comes in. In man box culture, we denigrate the feminine as a way to police boys and men back into the man box. This denigration of the feminine doesn’t happen monthly or weekly for boys, it’s happening minute by minute for decades. It continues into adulthood. The result is boys and men are systematically conditioned into believing women are less.

Caprino: How does man box culture show up in the workplace?

Greene: Catalyst Inc. just released a powerful study on masculine anxiety in the workplace and how it blocks men from engaging as allies. The sad fact is that high levels of man box driven masculine anxiety in the workplace and elsewhere are a fully intentional consequence of our dominance-based culture of masculinity.

Catalyst reports:

“The vast majority (76%) of men who experience a high degree of masculine anxiety said that they would do nothing if their colleague makes a sexist comment at work.”

In order for men to conform to  the very clear rules of man box culture, we must denigrate women. Accordingly, the blowback we face in man box culture when we support women is significant. It is the threat of that blowback which causes men to choose silence. I refer to this as the ongoing “suppressing fire” of man box culture.

By the time men enter the workforce, tasked to accept women as co-workers, managers, or bosses, we are struggling with decades of man box programming that both defines women as supposedly emotional, soft, weak, while simultaneously declaring strong women leaders and “too aggressive.” The subtext of all of this is that if we support girls or women as equals, we will lose status with the men around us.

The warning we will be kicked out of the boys’ club comes very early for boys. Judy Chu, author of When Boys Become Boys, is a researcher who was embedded in a pre-K classroom for two years. Her research reveals how these little boys were already beginning to hide their emotional acuity, learning instead to display the disconnected version of masculinity that our culture projects on them.

Chu tells the story of a little boy who told her he was friends with all the girls, but asked that she not tell Mike, the head of the boys club, because if Mike found out, he would kick this boy out of the boys club and he wouldn’t have a club any more.

What’s worse is that men and women equally have internalized man box culture. In a Harvard Business Review article on “How Men Can Become Better Allies to Women,” by W. Brad Johnson and David G. Smith, the authors state: “New research reveals that men perceived as less self-promoting and more collaborative and power-sharing are evaluated by both men and women as less competent (and, not incidentally, less masculine).”   

Caprino: How does man box culture impact issues like race, religion and immigration status?

Greene: Because the denigration of the feminine is continually used to police boys and men into the man box, they come to believe their value lies in the fact that girls and women are less.. When we fail to teach our sons, “Don’t make yourself feel better by putting others down,” we leave them susceptible to all forms of bigotry. 

Once a man thinks he’s got the right to dominate women, it doesn’t take much to convince him he’s got the right to dominate LGBTQI+ people, BIPOC, immigrants people of different religious beliefs, and so on. There is a direct overlap between male supremacist and white supremacist groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center has confirmed that these groups actively recruit from each other’s populations.

Caprino: What would society look like, if we were able to shift away from putting both men and women into a box that’s so tight and constraining?

Greene: One result would be dramatically lower levels of anxiety for all of us. For women, this would reduce the epidemic levels of violence and sexual assault by men. For men, we could live more authentic healthy lives, freed of the masculine anxiety created by the bullying and conformity we heap on each other. 

And as research by Deloitte and others shows, there would be a very dramatic increase in innovation and success for the public and private organizations we all rely on. They would  finally become fully diverse and inclusive. Freed of anti-innovation domination-based institutions and systems, we would finally be free to solve some of the looming global challenges we face as a species.

The case for an inclusive culture DELOITTE INSIGHTS/ DELOITTE.COM/INSIGHTS

Caprino: Finally, what can we all do — both men and women — to transform the man box culture. What are some specific steps we can take as individuals, leaders and organizations?

Greene: We are at our best personally and professionally when we are in authentic, healthy relationships with others. If we are to create a better world, healthy relationships must be our true north. My partner Dr. Saliha Bava and I are completing a book called The Relational Organization. It outlines the relational capacities we can employ to center relationships and collectively create innovative, agile, inclusive organizations. 

When we can do the work we need to do to grow healthy, inclusive relationships, we are then resourced to transform our society and the world for the better.

For more information, visit RemakingManhood.com.

Kathy Caprino is a career and leadership coach, speaker, educator, and author of The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss. She helps professionals build their most rewarding and impactful careers through her Career & Leadership Breakthrough programs, Finding Brave podcast, and courses. 

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