Schulich research considers fragile masculinity in the workplace

Man and woman at work, examining spreadsheets while seated at lunch table

New research from York University’s Schulich School of Business reveals that men tend to respond to questions about their gender identity with a variety of harmful workplace behaviours, including withholding help, mistreating coworkers, stealing company property and lying for personal gain.

Luke Zhu close-up portrait
Luke Zhu

The findings are contained in an article published recently in Harvard Business Review. The article was co-authored by Luke Zhu, associate professor of organization studies at the Schulich School of Business, together with Keith Leavitt, the Betty S. Henry Amundson Faculty Scholar in Ethics and professor of management at Oregon State University; Maryam Kouchaki, professor of management and organizations at Kellogg School of Management; and Anthony C. Klotz, associate professor of management at University College London School of Management.

The authors conducted a series of studies with more than 500 employees based in the U.S. and China that looked at the impact of experiences such as failing to live up to masculine or feminine stereotypes at work, being compared negatively to others with respect to masculine or feminine traits, holding a job traditionally viewed as masculine or feminine, and – for men – reporting to a female supervisor.

The researchers found that when men perceived these experiences as threats to their masculinity – which was often the case – they were more likely to engage in toxic workplace behaviour, including cheating, stealing, breaking rules and undermining colleagues. The pattern was not found among women when femininity was threatened.

“Men need to be aware of this behaviour, and proactively embrace a healthier version of masculinity,” says Zhu. “At the same time, managers and leaders can take steps to dismantle the structures that may be driving men to feel that their masculinity is being threatened in the first place.

“If we can create a workplace culture in which everyone feels that their gender identities are valued,” Zhu adds, “then we can begin reducing the destructive behaviour that often occurs when those identities are questioned or threatened.”