Equality and hegemonic masculinity

Equality and hegemonic masculinity or how discrimination becomes a "collateral damage"

By Julia Nentwich
April 10, 2020

We know far more about the practices of male colleagues in the company that actually hinder compared to the practices that promote equality. In my last blog post I elaborated on the beneficial practices of - mostly male - managers - today, once again, I am writing about discrimination. However, my particular focus is on explaining why discrimination happens. It is interesting to note, first of all, that discriminatory practices are often very subtle today. It is not so much the clearly discriminatory, sexist comments or even assaults by male colleagues that are at the centre of it (even if they still play a role and are by no means history), but rather practices that mostly go unnoticed as they are perceived as normal. The main aim here is to show the effects of everyday practices that are often not reflected upon and less to sweepingly accuse men of discriminatory practices. 

In her review article the British organisational scholar Elisabeth Kelan (2018) identified four key behaviours that cause women to experience discrimination in the workplace:

1. men creating connection with other men. 
2. men distancing themselves from women.
3. men impressing others
4. men showing heroic behaviour, for example by being available longer than everyone else in the office.
These are all practices that take place among men, are initially intended for an audience of men and are known in gender studies as "hegemonic masculinity". 

But first things first! In everyday working life, men exclude women in particular by allying themselves with other men and distancing themselves from women - often without realising it. To use a very stereotypical example: They meet with colleagues for a beer after work - and since it was previously a purely male gathering, they "forget" to invite their new female colleague to join them. Other examples are "typically male" topics of conversation such as football, Formula 1, cars or technology, or the enthusiastic listening to contributions from male colleagues - and ignoring contributions from women. Pixar's film "Purl", released last year, vividly illustrates some of these classic examples.

The practices described correspond to the mechanisms of "hegemonic" masculinity, i.e. a masculinity that acts as a norm, as identified by Raewyn Connell (1995) already in the 1990s: a certain heroic form of masculinity is to be aspired by all men as an ideal form. This is defined, on the one hand, by the demarcation of femininity, but also of masculinities that do not correspond to this ideal. Male identity is therefore primarily produced among men: Through continual comparisons between men, as well as with the ideal image. It is not decisive whether the individual man conforms to the ideal image or wants to be seen as a "hegemonic man" or not. What is essential is that the currently prevailing normative structure provides this possibility for him and that other men in particular could measure him against this ideal image. "Hegemonic masculinity" is thus to be understood as a powerful regulation of male identity. 

Central to this understanding of masculine identity is, as already mentioned, that it is primarily produced among men. Women simply do not take part in this game. It also seems to make little sense to talk to women about masculinity. Because men primarily interact with men to establish their male identity and as women are excluded here, discrimination from this perspective finally turns out being a "collateral damage". The resulting discrimination is an effect that is neither intended, nor planned or targeted behaviour. 

However, it is these practices that of course need to be questioned if gender relations in companies and society are to be changed. Moreover, the images of masculinity perpetuated here belong to the lumber room and rather not to a company of the present day. But that is not what I am getting at here. What is important to me at this point is that the lens of hegemonic masculinity allows us to see that women are often excluded and discriminated against in companies – and most often without their male colleagues even noticing. They are too busy doing what they have always done – together with their male colleagues, superiors, employees. That women do not play along when it comes to creating masculinity is too obvious to be noticed. 

Questioning constructions of masculinity and individual routines of creating a male identity in everyday practices is therefore also a powerful instrument for prevention. However, it is absolutely necessary to also change the corporate culture: How do we interact if the interaction is not about producing heroes, winners, strength? What kind of identities can we offer for our way of collaborating? From this perspective, finding alternatives to hegemonic masculinity is an important key to being able to promote more women into leading positions in the future. In our project "Leaders for Equality" we are investigating how these alternatives might look like and which other forms of masculinities can already be observed in companies. Surely, we will report on these results in this blog soon!

Connell, R. W. (1995). Masculinities. University of California Press.

Kelan, E. K. (2018). Men Doing and Undoing Gender at Work: A Review and Research Agenda.

International Journal of Management Reviews, 20(2), 544–558. doi.org/10.1111/ijmr.12146