Balancing Modern Masculinity and Femininity in Business

True inclusivity requires balancing the masculine and feminine in your culture.

Posted May 02, 2020

John is an SVP in a Fortune 500 company. We are implementing a system of coaching as an informal and formal tool for performance management across the company.

After one of our team sessions, he calls me aside. He shares that he is worried about some of the recommendations in the coaching system, such as taking out colleagues to lunches one-on-one or having an in-depth coaching session in a meeting room or in his office. His worry is about doing this with female colleagues. John is not alone. I am hearing similar concerns across the country from male leaders.

 The MANTORSHIFT Initiative, used with permission
Source: The MANTORSHIFT Initiative, used with permission

One really interesting study in the field in 2017 (Schmitt DP1, Long AE1, McPhearson A1, O'Brien K1, Remmert B1, Shah SH1) explored personality and gender differences from a global perspective. Their conclusion was that scientific evidence suggests gender differences in most aspects of personality—Big Five traits, Dark Triad traits, self-esteem, subjective well-being, depression—and values are conspicuously larger in cultures with more egalitarian gender roles, gender socialization, and sociopolitical gender equity. This would indicate that the social role theory appears inadequate for explaining some of the observed cultural variations in men's and women's personalities.

On the other end of the spectrum, Daphna Joel, an eminent neuroscientist, has reached the following conclusion: "What my team and I discovered is that sex/gender differences rarely add up in a single brain. That is, very few people have brains in which all the group-level sex/gender differences show up consistently in the form that is typical of one sex. In other words, it's extremely rare for all of these features to be present exclusively in the form more common in women than in men, or exclusively in the form more common in men than in women."

If we dive into the science of gender studies, we will find a lot of controversies, as many opposing views clash about the true nature of how men and women are different. One of the most heated discussions is on whether or not gender is binary. Some scientists argue that the concept of a gender binary does not suit the experience of many people, who don't feel they solely belong to one of the two gender categories. Nor does this concept fit the scientific data, which reveals that most humans possess a unique mosaic of gender characteristics, according to some.

The nature and source of the difference between men and women is a relevant question, and so is whether we need to think of gender as binary or as more of a continuum. In the meantime, we have a lot of practical challenges to address. For example, if you are a man leading a mixed-gender team today, you need to decide how you relate to them as a group and as individuals. You and your organization will need to decide what's appropriate and what's not.

One possible approach is to say, OK, gender shouldn't even be a consideration, and the goal is to build a gender-free culture. You have contributors, and you care about competences, performance, well-being, and achieving goals together, but you should be "gender blind." Unfortunately, there are many reasons why this is impractical and impossible. Firstly, we cannot ignore that we each carry thousands of years of cultural heritage in our DNA. We each carry images of men and women in our collective conscious and unconscious mind from the movies we have watched, the artworks we have seen, the stories we have heard from our parents and grandparents. We cannot just ignore all that, even if we disagree with much of what we see around us in society.

Some will say that these are just stereotypes, and they are no longer useful for us going forward. But this is where it gets interesting. People around the world respond to certain images and characters very strongly. All movie directors, screenwriters, and actresses know that. We are all familiar with the image of the Hero, and our heart starts beating faster as we watch Finn's character development in Star Wars. We resonate with the archetype of Mother and the Lover when we sympathize with Alicia Florrick from The Good Wife. Dumbledore from Harry Potter seems like a good old familiar figure from the neighborhood as we resonate with the universal image of the Magician. And let's not forget the Jester or, as previously known prior to the movie Batman, the Joker. You know, the Shakespearean character, our friend Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones?

So, what is this strange familiarity with these characters, and what do they represent?

According to Carl Gustav Jung, the human psyche is an androgynous entity regardless of what the gender of the physical person is (Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 7: Two Essays in Analytical Psychology). The psyche contains and embraces both the feminine and masculine. Jung called them the Animus and Anima. He also believed that the psyche has a conscious and an unconscious part. He believed that in what he called the collective unconscious, we all carry archetypes; they are like a Platonic Ideal. They exist as Universal Ideas that are common to all of mankind. So, whilst the anima/animus will naturally have a personal coloring in each individual, it will also have an archetypal or transpersonal component. We couldn't ignore these deeply rooted archetypes in us, even if we wanted to.

Coming back to John and his company, their diversity initiatives rightfully push them to try and balance gender in the ranks of leadership and all across the organization. And what happens if you try to bring more women into a culture that's "gender blind"?

We know the answer. Most work cultures today are very masculine, mainly due to the dominance of men in these organizations. The women who want to succeed need to adopt masculine traits, such as being highly assertive, strong in conflict, highly competitive, and not showing emotions. We can argue whether these traits are only considered masculine due to gender stereotypes or not… but the bottom line is this: The reason all that research shows that when "she rises, the company rises," is because women bring more emotional intelligence, more ability to think outside the box, a richer set of constructive conflict skills, a better ability to influence rather than coerce. Is this due to nature or nurture? I don't think that's all that relevant to our practical questions.

For us who lead teams today, the relevant question is what masculine and feminine elements and archetypes are in play in our culture, and how do they serve or hinder us? We cannot achieve our goals for diversity and equality if women become hyper-masculine at work. We cannot attract talented women to high-level business leadership roles if the cost for them is to not be their authentic self. We will not benefit from adding more of the same; we need diversity exactly to bring something new.

Before we talk about what masculinity looks like today, and we define modern masculinity, we cannot move forward. We can only change what we don't like about today's culture together. Men and women.

But how do we start?

We need to be aware that company culture and individual culture have a set of masculine and feminine components, and we need to be conscious about balancing them. Here is an example below from a team I worked with:

Masculine (Hero, King, Explorer, Jester,       Feminine (Heroine, Queen, Lover, Mother)

Priest, Magician)

Decisiveness                                                     Providing a safer environment

Assertiveness                                                    Empathy

Resilience                                                          Relationship orientation

Competitiveness                                               Collaboration

Do you agree with their list? Perhaps yes, or perhaps not. What matters is that this was the very first time they began to think about what their culture was like in terms of the masculine and feminine and how to balance it. So, if you want to get started, follow these five simple steps:

1. Get together the leadership teams and draw up a list of masculine and feminine elements and behaviors in your culture. Again, the point is not whether the above list is stereotypical or not. It is how you and your team define masculinity and femininity. 

2. The next question is what kind of culture and leaders you want to see. Do you want more of the Hero and Jester? More decisiveness and playfulness? Or are you lacking tenderness and vulnerability? Decide what mix of masculine and feminine would you like to see in your team and culture.

3. Train your leaders on the basic concept of masculine and feminine elements of personality, team culture, and organizational culture.

4. Agree on what specific habits and behaviors support creating the right mix. For example, you can agree that in each meeting, before making a decision, everyone will have one minute to say what's on their mind without interruption. As small as this sounds, it can make all the difference in terms of collaboration and feeling that you are "being heard."

5. Keep reviewing your agreed core-balanced behaviors on a monthly and quarterly level, preferably with the help of a team coach. Introduce mixed-gender collaboration circles and mastermind groups across the organization to continue the conversation of balancing feminine and masculine and how people experience teamwork.

Instead of ignoring Yin and Yang, let's get practical about how we want to show up and what culture we want to belong to. This way, we men can change how we relate to women at work and build a culture of diversity, innovation, and creativity.