Throughout history, masculinity has been defined by certain established norms, often including strength, dominance, and emotional stoicism. These norms, while having roots in cultural and societal constructs, have evolved to a point where they sometimes manifest in harmful ways. This harmful expression of traditional masculine characteristics, often referred to as "toxic masculinity," has been linked to a range of negative outcomes, including gender inequality, violence, and mental health issues. Recognizing and addressing toxic masculinity is therefore a critical step in fostering healthier individuals and societies. The implications for our workplaces should also be considered as American adults spend a significant portion of their lives at work.
To address toxic masculinity and its harmful effects isn’t about demonizing men or male attributes, but rather about challenging the harmful behaviors that some societal norms encourage in men. Some of these problematic standards include the belief that "real men" must always be strong, non-expressive and emotionless and this can lead to suppressed emotions and limited self-expression. Additionally, the notion that men should dominate, lead or control women, can lead to power dynamics that can result in aggression, violence, and sexism. In the workplace, this can play out in harmful dynamics that have negative implications for the victims of these behaviors, organizational culture, employees, and companies. It's the perpetuation of these stereotypes that can be damaging to both men and women, and therefore a societal issue that must be proactively addressed.
Any pathway to addressing the harmful and outdated traits associated with toxic masculinity should not seek to diminish masculinity, but to redefine it in a way that is adapted to the culture of our modern society. The attributes that have traditionally been associated with masculinity – like strength, courage, and leadership – aren't inherently bad. It's the narrow way in which they've been defined and enforced that leads to toxicity. For example, strength doesn't always mean physical power; it can mean emotional resilience, or the strength of character and this form of strength should be valued and displayed by everyone, not just women. Similarly, courage doesn't have to mean the absence of fear; it can mean standing up for others or expressing oneself honestly.
Any pathway to addressing the harmful and outdated traits associated with toxic masculinity should not seek to diminish masculinity, but to redefine it in a way that is adapted to the culture of our modern society.
Redefining masculinity also involves expanding our understanding of it to include attributes that have been traditionally excluded – like emotional openness, empathy, and vulnerability. These are human attributes, not just feminine ones, and acknowledging them as part of masculinity can help break the cycle of emotional suppression that toxic masculinity often enforces. These attributes are also beneficial to the people with whom we interact and the manner with which we go about doing our jobs. Data show that workers are increasingly expecting office culture to be inclusive, affirming, psychologically safe and somewhere they can be emotionally vulnerable without being ridiculed or ostracized. As organizations seek to attract the best, most emotionally-intelligent employees, they must also work collaboratively with organizational members to develop a culture where those values are espoused and reinforced.
Inclusivity is another key aspect of this redefinition. All men, regardless of their race, sexuality, or background, should be able to see themselves represented in this broader, healthier concept of masculinity. Furthermore, it's essential to recognize the intersectionality of people's experiences and how different aspects of identity – like race and sexuality – can influence one's experience of masculinity.
It is also essential to promote this redefined masculinity not only through words, but through actions. Understanding the power dynamics that have existed in our society, this would mean that the burden of responsibility lies with those who have traditionally held power and who played the most significant role in defining masculinity. It is the responsibility of these individuals, historically White Men, to do the important work of examining themselves and their values to unpack and discard any remnants of the outdated beliefs that perpetuate toxic masculinity. Similarly, persons with identities that have been marginalized must also be present in this work, whether doing their own internal work or serving as allies and partners. Addressing toxic masculinity is a societal responsibility that involves challenging norms and stereotypes, fostering open conversations, and cultivating an environment that allows all men to express themselves freely and fully. By redefining masculinity, we can pave the way for a society, communities and workplaces that are healthier, more equitable, inclusive, empowering, and free from the constraints of toxic behaviors thereby allowing us to be the best version of our personal and professional selves.