20 July 2007

Unmasking manly men

Last year, Robin Ely of Harvard Business School and Debra Meyerson of Stanford University co-authored a working paper, ‘Unmasking Manly Men: The Organizational Reconstruction of Male Identity’. The paper, according to a Harvard Business School Working Knowledge published interview, ‘not only explores how organizations influence the way men enact their gender, but also looks at how “organizational features might encourage people to resist enacting those stereotypes” (quote from Robin Ely).’

Here’s an excerpt from an interview of Professor Robin Ely by Sarah Jane Gilbert, discussing the research behind and the point of view of ‘Unmasking Manly Men’:

Sarah Jane Gilbert: How do you define masculine identity and what led you to study this topic?

Robin Ely: We define masculine identity as the sense a man makes of himself as a man, which develops in the course of his interactions with others. A man encounters—and learns to anticipate—others' expectations of him as a man; he responds, others react, and through this back-and-forth, he comes to see and present himself in particular ways. Such interactions do not occur ex nihilo, but are shaped by culturally available ideologies about what it means to be a man. Hence, men's masculine identity (like women's feminine identity) is a profoundly social and cultural phenomenon.

As organizational scholars, we were interested in organizations as social and cultural contexts that shape how men make sense of themselves as men—the stories they tell themselves about what it means to be male—and in the effect this sense-making has on how they behave at work. Much research on gender in organizations documents how men and women differ on a variety of dimensions, from leadership style to negotiation skills to work values, but neglects the organizational features that underlie such differences.

This body of research runs the risk of reifying differences, of making them seem natural. If study after study reports findings that align with stereotypes and does not address why, then these differences—in temperament, values, attitudes, and behaviors—take on a determinative quality. In a culture that readily promotes gender essentialism—the belief that sex differences are natural—stereotypes provide a default attribution for women's lack of progress in the public sphere of work, making it difficult to expose and undermine the social and cultural bases of inequality.

We were interested in generating theory about the contribution of organizations to the etiology of sex differences in behavior, cognition, and emotion at work. Specifically, we wanted to understand how organizational features, such as work practices and norms, encourage people to think, feel, and behave in a manner that is consistent with traditional sex-role stereotypes, but also how organizational features might encourage people to resist enacting those stereotypes.

From this perspective, both masculine and feminine gender identity are interesting to study, but to study men and masculinity was especially intriguing because so often the world presumes that only women have a gender. By studying men and masculinity, we were able to highlight that men too have a gender and to examine how organizations influence the way men enact their gender.

For those of you interested in unmasking manly men, read the full interview here.

[Citation: ‘Manly Men, Oil Platforms, and Breaking Stereotypes’, Sarah Jane Gilbert, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, 27 November 2006]

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