I sheltered myself in the bathroom stall and prayed no one would enter. The fluorescent lights cast a pallid glow as I stood there, shoulders shaking. Objectively, I was reacting to a tight deadline on a work assignment I didn’t understand. But inside, I felt broken, incompetent, a failure. I lowered my head and tears began to fall.
I took pride on staying in control. I couldn’t say the last time I had cried. How had I been reduced to crying in the work bathroom?
I’ve no doubt that courageous vulnerability belongs in modern masculinity. But toxic masculinity—masculinity manifested as aggression and emotionlessness—can still happen anywhere. It comes in many shapes. In the workplace, it isn’t restricted to manual labor.
My genteel law firm has a reputation as a civil place. It has a prestigious, hundred-year history in New York City. But inside its elegant offices, aggression seethed.
Sitting in my office, I heard shouts down the hall ridiculing other lawyers’ intelligence. Manliness was a recurring theme of insults. Other men’s fitness, baldness, and genitalia were regularly mocked, whether they were opposing counsel or junior lawyers on the same side.
Misogynistic insults flew freely when a female lawyer was on the other side, along with judgments on her attractiveness. I remember going to a steakhouse with partners after closing a deal. The taxi ride was filled with disrespect (“hey, check out her ass!”.)
We had the requisite sensitivity and anti-discrimination training. More women have entered the legal profession (half my law school class was female; my uncle had one woman in his). But the attitude persists. Despite diversity efforts, corporate law remains an old boy’s club in many ways.
We held an auction for a bankrupt company. It took early mornings and long nights, with some people not going home to sleep. As we hunkered down during negotiations, older members of the team regaled the room with war stories of previous deals, stories filled with cigars and strip clubs. Finishing their stories, they leaned back and crossed their hands behind their heads, beaming down the conference table.
I was obviously supposed to be impressed. To be part of the club, I had to be arrogant and callous. But actually, I was crying the bathroom, feeling overwhelmed and scared.
Beyond the open insults, the most insidious symptom of toxic masculinity was the suppression of vulnerability. Weakness in others was something to be mocked. Weakness in oneself could not be tolerated.
Long hours and lack of sleep were worn a badge of honor, even though so many people were so miserable. Lawyers suffer a higher rate of depression and suicide compared to non-lawyers. But we’re not allowed to talk about it. Rather, we’re supposed to battle through it, pushing ourselves to work even harder. I worked with a seemingly healthy 35-year-old lawyer who came down with pneumonia. Doctors had to take his Blackberry away from the hospital bed because the lawyer wouldn’t stop working. (Healthy 35-year-olds don’t get often hospitalized for pneumonia—unless they’ve been overworked and overstressed.)
Instead of dealing with depression and anxiety, we drank away our awareness of it. The firm plied us with free liquor at every work event. With our limited free time, we pressured ourselves to drink as much as possible when we could. It was work hard, play hard culture at its most clichéd.
This toxic breed of masculinity, with its worst, most antiquated features, still infects workplaces like my law firm. Dismissing it as the sole province of status-seeking workaholics doesn’t help anything. We need to understand it.
Anger often arises from fear. We can’t admit that we’re scared, so we get angry instead. Anger is safer. And it certainly seemed like my colleagues were angry. But what were we afraid of?
The job was our entire identity. So failure at the job meant failure as a person—and as a man. We couldn’t admit that we were scared of not measuring up. So we lashed out, became aggressive, and coped in unhealthy ways, in a desperate attempt to paper over the fear.
Imagine the power of a truly honest conversation that begins with “I am so scared of failing at this job. I’m a phony and I’m inadequate at this job. I’m so stressed out and I don’t know what to do.” And imagine the power of a response that doesn’t laugh someone out of the room but listens with empathy. Imagine the compassionate environment we could create.
I invite us to have a genuine conversation about vulnerability and courage as men. There is strength in honesty. Courage isn’t the strong, silent stereotype we’ve been taught for so long. Courage is admitting we have wounds and still moving forward. It’s admitting that our reliance on work for our identity is, in a very real sense, killing us. Crying in the bathroom is nothing to be ashamed of.
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