Masculinity is under fire these days. Social manifestations like The #MeToo Movement, popular culture references to “toxic” masculinity, and advertisements that challenge the long-accepted-but-never-discussed-or-examined constructs around masculinity are all shining a harsh light on the subject.
The oft-repeated cultural anthem, “Boys will be boys,” recently highlighted in a Gillette advertisement, is a phrase that we hear in most cultures around the world, at least in four that I know of. Despite the harms it works on everyone, it is ingrained in our belief systems and collective unconscious.
Something clearly has gone awry about the way masculinity is represented in our society.
And yet, masculinity is such an integral part of our system.
What is most compelling about the topic of masculinity today is how far our treatment of it is from the way other inclusion topics are treated.
We usually talk about “representation” and “ally-ship” as if those were the ultimate solutions to a long-broken institutionalized system of patriarchy, racism, and discrimination. But while representation and ally-ship are absolutely essential tools to create more equity in our system, these tools are effective at treating only the symptoms but not the disease.
Being inclusive begins with putting aside all judgement we might have, just for a moment, to tune into another world, a different truth, a completely different reality from ours. To create inclusion means to challenge the status quo and choose not to submit to a system that is doing us wrong.
Considering the uprising against toxic masculinity, we should also be challenging the status quo around the way we have molded this version of masculinity to date. Then we must take the next step further and consider what “healthy masculinity” could look like today. Unfortunately, however, this type of critical analysis and giving of space to work through these complex issues is currently missing in our conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion.
At ThinkHuman, we have decided to address this head-on by curating a conversation in an attempt to learn about healthy masculinity, using what we refer to as “The Fishbowl Process.” A Fishbowl is a curated conversation that supports an unusual endeavor: sparking a real, vulnerable, and open conversation addressing systemic taboos, such as racism, intersectionality, white supremacy and the way these social constructs show up in our society and especially at work.
The first part of the conversation is geared towards shedding light on the issue. We then direct the conversation into a forwards lean, a glimpse into the future and what we are hoping to see happen in the system and then finally a wide room debrief where we can hear from people specifically what they are willing to shift in their behavior or in their organization to challenge and change the status quo.
At our recent Fishbowl on Masculinity at Work, which we held in partnership with Culture Amp, in New York City, I found myself deeply touched and moved by what the men participating shared about what growing up as a man felt like and how living in “The Man Box” impacted their day-to-day lives. What impacted me the most was understanding what it means to be handed a “script” at a young age and then to be emotionally and physically punished for any behavior that deviates from this script:
“You could be bullied and threatened if your behavior derailed from what is expected of you.”
“You are not expected to cry because that’s for girls”
“You can’t hug your male friend because that makes you less of a man.”
“You can’t talk about how you feel because that’s not what men do.”
The speakers described how they this resulted in them not allowing themselves to feel authentic about who they were and how they showed up in the world.
We then discussed how these experiences shaped their views and behavior in their personal and organizational life: What can be done to propel healthy masculinity, we asked?
This is some of what we heard from our speakers on that night:
+ We need to be creating more spaces where men are able to share, without judgement, the challenges of living in The Man Box.
+ We should be supporting initiatives where men are given the opportunity to reflect and recognize when their behavior is driven by “a script,” rather than by their own values and beliefs.
+ We have to be supporting emotional awareness initiatives within the organizations we work for, and encouraging men to express themselves even if they don’t think it is the “right” thing to do.
+ Finally, we should be supporting them by encouraging possibilities of building real connections with other men and recreating aspects of the brotherhood they felt when they were younger, but in a healthy way..
“Men and women alike are hungry for this more inclusive nuanced kind of conversation about masculinity.”
So what’s next?
How about we start by having these conversations in our own families, with our neighbors, in our community meetings and social gatherings? This can be as simple as asking questions like
“How was it growing up as a man for you?”
“Did you feel you were allowed to express your emotions the way you wanted?”
“What can I do to support you?”
In other words, we can start by asking to the men in our lives and start including them in this crucial conversation. It may just be the most important conversation of their lives.
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