Patty Beach and Roger Toennis explore gender archetypes in the workplace and how the “V-Factor” can bring out the best in your employees.
Now that we have marriage equality and the World’s Greatest Athlete becoming a woman, perhaps it’s time to reexamine the way we think and talk about gender. We have written 4 articles now on the Good Men Project about gender in the workplace. When we label words as masculine or feminine we often get push back from our readers. Our readers are asking, “how does it help to label words like competitive, strong or structured as masculine?” And also, “how does it help to label words like collaborative, soft or flexible as feminine?” After all, we all know competitive women and collaborative men. Given changing roles, are these constructs useful any more? Aren’t we just stereotyping when we say something is masculine or feminine? What about our GLBT colleagues? Don’t they prove that there really is no such thing as being masculine or feminine?
These are important questions because language shapes our thinking. Despite the fact that these terms are confounding, they are some of the only English words that help us explore changing gender roles while also creating a balanced path forward. So let’s take a moment, to explore and clarify what these words really mean.
The word masculine describes patterns of behavior historically seen in men. The word feminine describes patterns of behavior historically seen in women. While these patterns have evolved over time, the terms masculine and feminine are archetypes that remain firmly rooted in the relative differences between men and women. Archetypes are tools to describe any one or any thing. A key to understanding the power of the words masculine and feminine is to realize that the words ‘masculine’ and ‘male’ are not synonyms. Nor are the words ‘feminine’ and ‘female’ synonymous. When we say something is masculine or feminine, we are talking about archetypes (not stereotypes). Archetypes apply to not only men AND women but also to culture, art, business, architecture etc.
Here’s a concrete example of how these words help address a key issue at work. At work, many women have to walk a tightrope. If they show up as too feminine (e.g. soft spoken) they are not taken seriously. If they show up as too masculine (e.g. decisive) they are accused of being “bossy.” This experience is called the “Double Bind.” The Double Bind forces women to suppress feminine characteristics in order to get ahead. It also prevents them from behaving in a direct and decisive manner as men do.
A similar issue for men is called the “Man Box.” The Man Box is a code of behavior expected of men. It has strict rules that include: to never show weakness, always be superior to women and not appear gay in any way. To adhere to the Man Box rules, men face pressure to purge feminine thoughts and behaviors.
Unfortunately, in many corporations, staying within the confines of the Double Bind and the Man Box is the only ladder up. The combined impact is repression of feminine qualities in the workplace. This is very different than talking about repression of women at work. To break out of the Double Bind and the Man Box requires we define and discuss the full range of feminine and masculine behaviors and qualities. We must acknowledge that men AND women are repressing feminine qualities and that men AND women AND the business all experience real losses. Depending on our gender, these losses may be experienced differently. For example, women will be acutely aware of shutting their feminine side down. Meanwhile, men may not even be aware that they are shutting their feminine side down. A woman suppressing the feminine in the workplace will often hide her frustrations and fail to surface real business issues out of a fear of becoming emotional or even crying. For a man, it might mean that he won’t ask for help from coworkers out of a fear of appearing vulnerable. Suppressing the feminine can easily lead to a “sink or swim” toxic culture where people don’t feel engaged. But it’s not just a culture issue. Suppression of positive feminine behaviors can result in situations where revenue-impacting issues don’t get resolved.
Many are totally unaware that shutting out the feminine can be a business performance issue. Some others advocate that any masculine modes of business operations are outdated. Advocates for this philosophy have declared that feminine-centric business behaviors are the “new paradigm” for how we should operate at work. An ‘either/or’ choice between masculine or feminine approaches is the result of a lack of understanding of the polar opposite, yet complementary, nature of these two ways of being. It is also the result of the false belief that only men can be masculine and only women can be feminine. In fact, both men and women are completely capable of using both approaches to solve problems.
While the terms masculine and feminine are still valuable, we find they are lacking. We would like to add a new term to the lexicon to encourage a balanced pursuit of masculine and feminine energy across gender lines. When we dynamically access and blend both masculine and feminine energies; we become optimally versatile and effective across any situation we encounter. We call the relative ability to access masculine and feminine energy your “Versatility Factor,” or “V-Factor.” When we use both strengths to achieve goals we become more versatile and raise our V-Factor. Conversely, when we limit ourselves to either masculine or feminine approaches we become less versatile and lower our V-Factor. This new terminology not only holds the power to resolve gender issues in the work place, it could also expand the very nature of business and open new ways to succeed at work.
Photo credit: Flickr/Schub@