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Nice Guys Suffer at Work, but They Succeed at Home

Men who don't conform to masculine norms often get penalized at the workplace. But they're more wired for success at home.

If you’re looking for nominally extreme but, in reality, sadly accurate depictions of toxic masculinity, look no further than the depiction of suit-and-tie businessmen in films and television. From American Psycho to Mad Men to The Wolf of Wall Street, Hollywood seems to both condemn and gleefully reinforce the idea that men become successful business leaders through a pragmatic ruthlessness that crosses over into bullying and intimidation. Unfortunately, research shows that this might be exactly right.

At least, that’s what David Mayer, a professor of business at the University of Michigan, posited in his recent article “How Men Get Penalized For Straying From Masculine Norms”. “Research demonstrates that men too face backlash when they don’t adhere to masculine gender stereotypes,” wrote Mayer. “When they show vulnerability, act nicer, display empathy, express sadness, exhibit modesty, and proclaim to be feminists.” This raises a different question: If men are punished for straying from accepted gender norms, is the equal and opposite true in the other major arena of their life: at home?

To understand the dichotomy at play here, you first have to acknowledge how deep this problem goes in the business sector particularly. “The way men are socialized to act at work is similar, but probably even more extreme, to how they are socialized to exist in the world,” says Mayer. “Men are supposed to be strong, dominant, stoic, aggressive, competitive, and ambitious in a professional setting. And perhaps most importantly … they are supposed to not be “feminine” — which is referred to as the ‘anti-femininity mandate.’”

Mayer notes that this kind of socialization has led to a tendency for “sub-optimal” leadership within various businesses. “Research on the ‘female leader advantage’ shows that, on average, women leaders are higher performing,” says Mayer. “The main reason is because they are simply more likely to display stereotypically feminine qualities such as being sensitive, empathetic, good listeners, relationship-oriented, others-focused, and helpful.” This creates a vicious cycle: men have fewer female role models in positions of power because male leaders are generally less likely to support gender equality at work.

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On the flip side, a man’s home life is a far smaller ecosystem that is stripped of the same sense of competition. Adherence to conventional gender roles is equally problematic there, but the positive effects of rejecting those roles are immediately and encouragingly apparent.

For instance, one major problem with the presence of gender roles in the home is that it restricts a fair distribution of work between spouses. “Some research suggests that relationship satisfaction is at its highest when there is an even division of family labor,” says Carrie Krawiec, a marriage and family therapist at the Birmingham Maple Clinic. “This doesn’t have to be actually equal, but rather perceived as equal by the couple.” For some, Krawiec notes, this may mean one partner does the inside jobs and the other does the outside ones. Or it can mean one does the dishes on Tuesday and Thursday and the other does them on Monday and Wednesday.”

A way to reinforce these results is to be aware of the potentially toxic presence of gender roles within a family, and simply acknowledge when you feel like you’re going against the grain.

“If you aren’t the one doing some gender typical, preferred, or [simply] your own least favorite task, be sure to give frequent statements of gratitude,” says Krawiec. “If your spouse has assumed the role of managing finances because she is better at it or more aware of the income be sure to give frequent thanks for this role.” Likewise, Krawiec notes, women could and should be expressing gratitude when their partners complete household duties instead of micromanaging them for not being done a preferred way.

It’s steps like these — acknowledging when outside expectations are preventing you from being a genuinely helpful member of a team, and reacting to that accordingly — that suggest this trend will be able to reverse itself.

“We have already started socializing girls that it is okay, and even good, to have ‘masculine’ qualities and interests such as being tough, competitive, playing sports, and being interested in STEM fields,” says Mayer. “However, we have been slow to encourage boys to be more sensitive, to ask for help, and to go into helping professions such as being teachers and health care providers.”

Work may be a largely competitive atmosphere, where there’s always a ladder to climb, and always someone trying to climb ahead of you. But there are great rewards for those who recognize that your home is a fundamentally different environment, where a host of other qualities allow you to succeed.

“I’ve often thought if leaders thought about their employees the same way they thought about their children they would act in more productive ways,” says Mayer. “Being tough and encouraging independence, but also showing compassion and care for their best interests.”

The road to stripping the business world of these tendencies begins at home: taking a good look at how you work best there, and carrying that new definition of strength with you out the door after your morning coffee.