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“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.

…but have men?

Here’s the place we find ourselves in today: Women have spent the past century expanding the definition of “feminine” in almost every country on the planet. For the past half-century, the LGBT community has been engaging each other and the world in a conversation about what it means to live outside gender stereotypes. Remarkably, despite these decades-long conversations, for a cis-gender man, the definition of what it means to be a “man” is still quite narrow.

So much has changed for men. And yet many of them don’t have anyone to talk to about it with. As Lisa Wade wrote in Salon in a roundup of the research, adult, heterosexual men have fewer friendships than other groups. “Moreover,” she writes, “the friendships they have, if they’re with other men, provide less emotional support and involve lower levels of self-disclosure and trust than other types of friendships.” According to the researchers, men wanted emotionally intimate relationships just as much as women; they were just less likely to have them. For men who had someone to confide in, “three quarters of the time it’s a woman, and there’s a good chance she’s his wife or girlfriend.” It’s tough to relate to people – or read the complex emotions of your colleagues – if you’ve been taught to stifle your feelings.

In the words of masculinity expert Michael Kimmel, men are still expected (or think they are expected) to be tall and strong and silent – like the proverbial rock.

Anger, of course, is different — as Andrew Reiner of Towson University wrote in the New York Times, “boys are taught, sometimes with the best of intentions, to mutate their emotional suffering into anger.”

Offices perpetuate the rigid strictures of masculinity. While gender biases and inflexible systems still hold back working mothers, research has found that fathers who take time off to care for their families may be even more harshly penalized at work. Even a short absence results in lower performance evaluations and fewer awards, something that doesn’t happen when men take time off for other, more “macho” reasons (such as taking a vacation or training for a marathon). Perhaps that helps explain why, in the UK this year, only 1% of fathers took advantage of a brand-new paternity leave policy.

Until we can have an inclusive conversation – with everyone, including men – about existing gender roles, expectations and stereotypes, we are bound to remain locked in them. It will never change anything to talk about gender in a group of like-minded, like-bodied people, although this may feel momentarily empowering. In a gender balanced world, how to be a leader, manager and employee at work takes new skills and adaptation, as does how to be a father, husband, lover, and son at home. Yet these are much-needed conversations are still waiting to happen.

While men may look at today’s power structure and see it (perhaps reassuringly) dominated by their own gender, they must look around their classrooms, their homes, and their businesses, and see the reality shifting before their eyes. Now that women have shown that humans can flex across the whole spectrum of traditionally male and female roles, can we allow men this freedom? Can they allow it to each other?

 

 

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