To succeed in the modern workforce, men need to learn to play well with others—and forget our outmoded expectations of leadership.
In the 11 years since I graduated college, I have worked under three chief executives. All women. This would be a unique situation in the corporate world, where women make up only 2.5 percent of the CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies, but in the non-profit sector where I work it’s far more common. According to the White House Project, 45 percent of the CEOs of non-profit organizations—and 73 percent of the non-profit workforce—are women. While there is still a glass ceiling (a persistent wage gap exists in non-profits and women are far less likely to hold leadership positions at non-profits with larger budgets), it is still a field where strong female leaders are a recognized presence.
So what’s it like being a man in a field where women make up the majority of your colleagues?
The first thing to realize is that a female-dominated workplace does not make institutionalized sexism go away. To some, that may be a pretty obvious thing to say, but it’s something many of us don’t realize. Some believe male privilege vanishes in the presence of a female supervisor, and that men become oppressed because a woman has some degree of authority over them. I’ve seen it up close: men still expect to be able to talk over female peers and dominate discussions—and then resent the women who won’t tolerate it. I can tell you that these attitudes exist in largely female workplaces, but I can also tell you that they aren’t productive or sustainable. The men who could not play well with others—who couldn’t learn to work with female colleagues as equals—were not my colleagues for long.
Being aware of privilege can be difficult, but being aware of internalized sexism can even more challenging—I was interested in feminism at an early age, but I was still unprepared for this. Collaborating with female supervisors and colleagues who did not line up neatly with societal expectations threw my internalized expectations of gender roles into sharp relief. The women with whom I worked had enormously varied professional styles and philosophies. “Feminine” and “masculine” traits lost all meaning. My coworkers were simply coworkers—peers, committed to the same goals.
Gender is part of who we all are, but it alone is not a predictor of our actions. Learning this is not just about seeing what women can do, but also what we ourselves are capable of. Men don’t just internalize ideas about the gender roles expected of women, but also what is expected of us. Men are told to be aggressive and competitive; we’re judged on our ability to live up to these ideals. Sure, there are professional environments where these traits are desirable, but they aren’t universally good, nor are they exclusively male.
The reverse is also true. Men can employ “feminine” traits to great advantage in their own work lives. It’s important for men to look beyond our internalized expectations of ourselves to find what really works.
Working for non-profits definitely requires assertiveness as well as the work ethic to put in long hours. Most non-profits get things done with far fewer financial and personnel resources than for-profit enterprises, and they make up the difference with the determination of their staffs. This also requires a high degree of cooperation; both with your coworkers and with “rival” organizations. A community where multiple non-profits in a particular sector can thrive is stronger than one where only a single group can exist.
Success also requires sacrifice. No one gets rich doing non-profit work. You put in long hours for low pay. To make it, you have to feel that your sacrifice is worth it. Women have found success working for non-profits not because of their “feminine” professional traits, but because of their capacity to look past these sorts of gender roles. Men in this field need to do the same; they can draw inspiration from female leaders who have done it. You don’t often hear about men having female role models, but I hope that can change.
The reason my workplaces have been so productive is in large part due to the women steering the organizations. All were unique in their approach to leadership, but the key to their success is how they fostered environments that granted opportunities to all employees, and insisted that their team respect one another and the organization. Each manager defied expectations—not simply of what’s expected of women, but what’s expected of those at the helm. In a society where “leadership” is often defined to presume maleness, the female leaders for whom I’ve worked realized their potential without any nod to expectation. Their professional styles did not fit snugly into convention. They exhibited what people—not just women—are capable of, and I’ve been profoundly inspired by their passion, commitment, and perseverance.
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