I had the pleasure of co-leading a focus group of Gen X and Millennial men as part of International Men’s Day on November 19. The group of nine men varied in ethnicity and sexual orientation and were a mixture of single and married men, with and without children.
This group of men gathered to share:
- their views of societal norms on masculinity and how much they feel the need to subscribe to them in the workplace;
- how societal norms of masculinity impact how they show up to work as a leader and as a colleague;
- their sense of belonging and bringing of their full selves to work; and
- their views of typical work-family policies (parental leave, flex time, part-time work), and how societal norms of masculinity impact their adoption and the perceived impact on their careers.
For the purpose of this session, we introduced the “man-box” description to illustrate masculine norms, including self-sufficiency, acting tough, physical attractiveness, rigid masculine gender roles, heterosexuality, hyper-sexuality and aggression and control. Prior to the focus group, we asked the male participants to review the executive summary of the Man Box: A Study on Being a Young Man in the U.S., U.K. and Mexico and a second report from the Institute for Gender and the Economy (GATE) at the Rotman School of Management, that analyzes the negative relationship between masculine norms and gender equality.
The 90-minute session covered a number of different topics, ranging from the messages that men receive from society in terms of what are acceptable behaviors to the multiple numbers of settings in which men finding themselves during a 24-hour period that impact how much pressure they feel to comply with inflexible masculine norms.
Highlights from the discussion include:
Conflicting societal messages — During the discussion, men talked about the many conflicting societal messages that they receive growing up and then as adult men. One participant noted that in his teens, playing sports reinforced many “man-box” descriptions, such as stigmatizing the expression of emotions and rigid masculine gender roles. Then, as an art student in New York City, he described how his college experience in many ways was the exact opposite because the range of acceptable masculine behaviors was much larger because of the diversity of the student body.
Mental health & stress — The group also discussed the negative impact on their mental health as they try to meet (or fail to) societal expectations, which often is intensified by the fact that seeking professional help for stress remains a stigma in our society, especially for men. “Navigating the pressures of man-box descriptions and heterosexual pressures leads to mental health and stress — straight men having to prove themselves as straight,” one attendee said. “We are living in quiet desperation.”
Fluid environments — The group also noted that their current environment — including who they are with — can impact the pressures of adherence to rigid masculine norms. For the most part, the men indicated that they felt pretty comfortable being themselves at work without having to worry about expectations of adhering to the man-box descriptions.
On the flip side, if one of them is grabbing drinks with their male friends at the bar, the pressure can increase to “be a guy’s guy,” where comments of objectifying women are common, which, for most of the men, resulted in some level of discomfort.
Feedback on workplace culture & using work-family policies
All of the men acknowledged that workplace culture and the actions of leadership and management impacted their retention and level of comfort in using work-family policies at their company. Many men highlighted the fact that the company’s reputation for good work-life balance was a key reason they had joined and remained at their firms.
Work-family policies — At the company where the men in the focus group were employed, there had been a change in parental leave policy two to three years ago, making it equal for both parents at 16 weeks. As a result, 91% of the men indicated that they would use these work-family policies at the company and 100% of the men said they thought their male peers would take advantage of the company’s work-family policies.
However, there was more variability when it came to the influence of their male peers in using the work-family policies. While most of the participants, 52%, stated that the perceptions of their male peers were unlikely to impact their participation in the work-family policies, another 36% said that it was likely to influence their participation. This is consistent with the finding from the GATE report.
Parental leave — Two men from this company recently had children, and they noted that they had taken the full 16 weeks of leave and felt comfortable doing so. They also indicated how they had staggered the timing of using their leave with that of their partner or spouse. For example, one dad said that for the first six weeks, his partner stayed home with the newborn while he went back to work, and then when his infant was 6 weeks old, he took his leave while his partner returned to work.
Being alone with his child for an extended amount of time made him realize how difficult and exhausting having an infant can be, and he indicated that when paternity leave was only two weeks, he was positive he would not have fully understood this level of exhaustion, noting that with two weeks, you can really only “help out.”
Workplace flexibility — The men agreed that the company’s culture on workplace flexibility really helped to retain them. However, only 50% of attendees said they would actually speak to their manager about it. The other 50% said that as long as they were meeting their objectives and key results, they did not feel the need speak to their manager about their needs. They worked when they needed to.
Sense of belonging — The focus group’s feedback on their ability to truly be themselves was also positive and again, it was largely influenced by the culture of the organization. A full 91% of participants indicated that they at least feel somewhat comfortable in their ability to fully be themselves at work, and the same amount shared that the man-box norms did not negatively impact their level of comfort in being who they are.
Observations on engaging men in inclusion
While my conclusions from this experience are not resolute and I would need to participate in more discussions of this nature to make them final, my key recommendations on ways to increase men’s participation in inclusion include:
Conduct “men only” intergenerational programming on masculine norms — At the end of the session, the feedback was really positive, and many of the participants indicated that they would welcome participation in additional sessions.
Stop using women-hosted sessions to discuss male engagement — Very few men show up, and it is perceived by many men as promoting an “us vs. them” mentality, with men leaving these sessions feeling defensive.
While it is true that it would be great for larger numbers of males to increase their vocal and active support for women’s leadership, having “male engagement in gender equality” sessions hosted by employee resource groups (ERG), business resource groups (BRG) or women’s initiative groups is not really producing much change. As a result, my emerging conclusion is that sessions focused on discussing masculine norms are a more effective way because it focuses on men’s experiences and perspectives.
When they are included in the dialogue as change agents, men have a greater sense of ownership in the change that everyone wants to achieve — that being greater representation of women and other diverse groups at all levels of the organization, and a culture where men feel empowered to be themselves in the workplace and participate in work-family policies without stigma or penalty to their careers.
The statement by one of the participants sums up my key findings perfectly — when asked, “What was the first thing that popped in your mind when you got an invite about International Men’s Day Focus Group?” one participant commented: “Finally, something for men.”