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Sunday, December 4, 2022

Rooting Out the Masculine Defaults in Your Workplace – HBR.org Daily

Masculine defaults in the workplace aren’t new, but you may not always notice them. Masculine defaults are a form of gender bias in which characteristics and behaviors typically associated with men are rewarded and considered standard practice. But the evidence shows that effective workplaces require masculine and feminine behaviors (as well as non-gendered ones) to be effective. With masculine defaults, it may seem like there’s equal opportunity for men and women, but men are often more socialized to engage in stereotypical masculine behaviors and more typically rewarded for them. Based on their research, the authors identify how masculine defaults permeate organizations, and steps to address them: 1) Identify masculine defaults, 2) determine their necessity, and 3) dismantle or balance them. They also identify traps to avoid when addressing masculine defaults at work, like 1) believing that removing gender information is enough, 2) fighting masculine defaults with masculine defaults, and 3) seeing masculine defaults as culturally “good.”
Over the past two-plus years, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed how we work. Hours are more flexible, it is harder to interrupt each other over Zoom, children and pets are in the background, coworkers ask more personal questions (“Are those your grandparents in the frame on your bookcase?”), and there are fewer drinks with colleagues after work. In many ways, work has become much less masculine.
What do we mean by this?
As professors of psychology, we have spent decades studying gender, culture, and workplaces. As we describe in a 2020 published paper, before the pandemic, most workplaces were rife with what we term masculine defaults. Masculine defaults are a form of gender bias in which characteristics and behaviors typically associated with men are rewarded and considered standard practice. In the U.S., for example, this might include being self-oriented, independent, assertive, competitive, or risk-taking.
Masculine defaults are embedded in descriptions of workplace culture (Uber’s “aggressive, unrestrained” culture), company practices that reward male-socialized behaviors (Google requires self-promotion to get ahead), and funding practices that require activities that men are more likely to participate in than women (a venture capital event with a kiteboarding prerequisite). These defaults are often put (or unwittingly fall) into place without questioning whether they are the most effective or productive way to work.
But are masculine defaults actually necessary for an effective workplace? The evidence is now robust: Success at work requires both stereotypically masculine and feminine characteristics. As we explore below, many organizations improved — rose in rankings, obtained more venture capital, and identified the full potential of their candidates — after they reduced their masculine defaults and revamped their workplace practices to include more feminine defaults.
The pandemic has made it clear that the way we used to work is only one way to work — not necessarily the best way to work. As we adjust to more hybrid and in-person work and rethink policies, norms, and procedures, now is the time to interrogate the way our organizations’ foundations, structures, and habitual everyday practices are saturated with masculine defaults. Here, we discuss how masculine defaults play out in organizations, how to decide if they are necessary, and how to dismantle or counterbalance them.
Masculine defaults are particularly insidious because they’re harder to pin down than a more common type of workplace bias: differential treatment. Differential treatment happens when women are paid less, passed over for promotions, and harassed — in other words, when women can’t access certain opportunities as easily as men can.
With masculine defaults, the doors are often presented as open for both men and women, which makes it seem like there’s equal opportunity; but the workplace rewards and favors standard stereotypically masculine characteristics and behaviors. Masculine defaults are often less obvious than differential treatment, even though they are everywhere, embedded in organizational culture — in values, norms, policies, interaction styles, objects, and individual beliefs. With masculine defaults, the rules advantage many men and disadvantage many women, as well as men and non-binary people who do not display stereotypically masculine characteristics.
Importantly, masculine defaults often differ by culture, race, and ethnicity. For example, some behaviors that are typically seen as feminine in the U.S., such as being collectivistic, are stereotyped as masculine in some Korean cultures. Black women are often rendered invisible in a society that sees the default person as white and the default Black person as a man.
So, why do masculine defaults disadvantage many women and others who may not ascribe to the masculine ideal? And why can’t women simply learn these rules and follow them like many men do? We see three key reasons.
First, men and women are often socialized differently. Many women have had fewer opportunities than men to practice behaviors deemed masculine because they are not socialized to have, or see themselves as having, stereotypically masculine characteristics. For example, organizations that embed masculine defaults in their recruiting processes may find it harder to attract people who are not socialized to display these characteristics. When Made by Many, a digital product design company, changed its job ad for a senior designer from looking for someone who was “unreasonably talented” and “driven” to someone who was “deeply excited by the opportunity of creating thoughtful digital products that have lasting impact,” the percentage of women in the application pool went up from 15% to 35%.
Second, even when women display stereotypically masculine characteristics, they are often not recognized as having them. In a study on venture capital pitches, for example, women and men actors were trained to have identical pitches in content and style of delivery. However, raters perceived the women’s pitches as less fundable than the men’s. Men’s pitches were rated as significantly more “fact based,” “logical,” and “persuasive” than women’s pitches.
And finally, when stereotypically masculine characteristics are recognized in women, they can face backlash or punishment when they are deemed to be “too masculine.” For instance, women enrolled in a professional development program in 2013 reported pressure to tone down their contributions and moderate their strong personalities to avoid negative feedback and professional consequences from their male colleagues.
Backlash for violating gender stereotypes differs across racial groups, too. What is considered masculine behavior for white women may be very different for other women. Black women, for instance, may not face the same backlash that white women and Black men face for some behaviors consistent with masculine defaults, such as being assertive. Yet Black women still walk a tightrope: The “angry Black woman” stereotype hinders Black women’s performance evaluations and ability to get promoted. In other words, the backlash faced by women of color often occurs at different times and in different forms than backlash faced by white women.
Although masculine defaults run deep, they can be remedied. In the early 2000s, for example, Harvey Mudd College’s computer science department graduated less than 10% women. Less than a decade later, the same department graduated 55% women. They achieved this in part by analyzing their masculine defaults and changing them.
Below are some of the steps they took. After we outline each, we’ll offer an example of how you might use them in your own organization as you negotiate in-person, hybrid, and remote work.
Start by asking people at various levels of the organization to list as many elements of the culture (both formal and informal) as possible. These lists can be further supplemented with the organization’s mission and values, policies, meeting dynamics, and language used on workplace chats. Next, compare the various elements of your culture that emerge with lists of stereotypically masculine behaviors and characteristics.
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Harvey Mudd examined its admissions policies, introductory course curricula, and classroom dynamics and noticed a masculine default: Students with prior programming experience were valued over those without. Valuing prior programming experience is a masculine default because high school girls are less likely to obtain programming experience than boys. Black and Latinx girls are also significantly less likely than white girls to obtain programming experience, making this value particularly problematic for many women of color.
Ask: Are the masculine defaults identified in step one necessary? That is, essential to the survival of the organization or too foundational to change? This could entail having leaders ask themselves whether they could change the masculine default and continue to be viable, or doing a short-term experiment where the masculine default is altered to see whether it is necessary.
For example, prior programming experience may seem necessary to get the “best” students into a computer science department. But this was also preventing Harvey Mudd from identifying excellent students who had not yet had the opportunity to learn the skill. Faculty and staff eventually realized that valuing students with prior programming experience was not necessary when they observed many students who had little to no prior programming experience excel in more advanced courses later.
There are two options to address masculine defaults: 1) If a masculine default is deemed unnecessary, dismantle it by attending to where and how it shows up in the organization; 2) if a masculine default is deemed necessary or too difficult to dismantle, balance it by elevating a feminine or non-gendered default.
In the end, Harvey Mudd did both. It dismantled its masculine default by changing its curriculum to no longer reward students who came in with more programming experience and taught instructors how to prevent students with more programming experience from intimidating other students. The school also worked on balancing out masculine defaults by elevating feminine defaults. For example, they added “creative problem solving” to the name of their introductory course and emphasized the importance of teamwork in programming.
How can your organization tackle a similar challenge? Let’s say you want to reintroduce team meetings and gatherings as your organization contemplates hybrid, in-person, or remote options.
First, your company could do assessments of masculine defaults separately for your various in-person and remote team gatherings — these could include everything from regular meetings to after-work social events — as you think about navigating new work setups. Considering where masculine defaults show up most intensely could help guide leaders on which mode to use for future similar gatherings.
Let’s say you find masculine defaults in your in-person monthly team meetings, with people talking over each other and others taking up a lot of airtime, and in your after-work social events at bars. Ask: Are these gatherings, in their current form, necessary for organizational viability? To answer this question, consider what would happen if the dynamics were different. An experiment where you try different options and see what happens can also be helpful in making this assessment. We recommend assessing outcomes for women of color (separated by racial/ethnic group if numbers permit) to ensure that this effort does not help only white women.
If you determine that your current meeting style is problematic, now may be the time to switch to a remote meeting or establish a new way of running in-person ones to prevent interruption or encourage more people to share (e.g., raising hands or using a queue to contribute). Perhaps masculine defaults are showing up in your after-work social events at bars. This may be a great time to balance out that masculine default with an additional social event during the lunch hour as people are more eager to come back together to form community.
As you begin identifying, dismantling, and balancing the masculine defaults at your organization, keep in mind some common traps we see even among companies with the best of intentions.
Unfortunately, just treating all genders equally or removing gender information from applications isn’t enough on its own. Studies have shown that blinding reviewers to name and gender information doesn’t prevent them from selecting candidates who adhere to masculine defaults.
Some gender equality initiatives can actually exacerbate masculine defaults. In 2014, Google’s required self-nomination process for promotion caused women to get promoted at lower rates than men. A head of engineering thought he solved this problem by sending emails to remind women to nominate themselves. This strategy caused more women to self-nominate, but sending these emails reinforced the stereotypically masculine value of promoting oneself and asked women to conform to it.
Remember, masculine defaults are just that: defaults, which are often coded as good or standard behavior in Western industrialized nations like the U.S. This overlap makes masculine defaults more difficult to identify and root out because many people perceive them as generally good rather than reflecting and benefitting a subset of the population.
The pandemic has done some of the work of dismantling masculine defaults. MaiTai, the venture capital kiteboarding event, was halted because non-essential travel was curbed. Airbnb dismantled a previous masculine default (expecting employees to work from the office) when it gave employees the option to live and work anywhere. Google instituted “reset days” in the form of extra paid holidays and “no meetings weeks” to improve wellness and mental health.
But this doesn’t mean that all of the problems with masculine defaults were solved by remote work. The stereotypically male behavior of under-participating in childcare and homeschooling is being rewarded, with men pumping out more academic papers than women, and having cameras on during meetings may be more exhausting for women than men.
If the pandemic has highlighted the many ways that workplace cultures are masculine in design, it’s also shown us that it doesn’t have to be this way. As employees return to the office and explore hybrid and remote work, leaders have a chance to rethink and remake their cultures so that they are inclusive for people of all genders.

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