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How Men Sabotage Themselves

And what entrepreneurs can do about it

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According to Scott Melzer: our definition of manhood is still too rigid / Getty Images

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September 4, 2018

Are you setting yourself up for failure? If you buy into traditional male stereotypes, then yes, you are.

 

Just ask Scott Melzer, author of the new book Manhood Impossible. He scoured online forums and blog posts and interviewed over 50 men to find out what happens when men feel they have to live up to masculine ideals—both “body” ideals (strength, sexual performance) and “breadwinner” ideals (provider status)—but fall short.

 

The answer isn’t pretty.

 

We’re talking severe depression, feelings of inadequacy, and social isolation. Men put their physical and psychological health at risk—and they put others at risk, too, as men may deal with feelings of failure by lashing out in destructive and violent ways.

 

That’s because our definition of manhood is still too rigid, according to Melzer.

 

“We’ve seen huge changes in expectations for women in last 60 years,” Melzer says. “We haven’t seen men’s norms change nearly enough or as much. And I think that speaks to this power dynamic where men are boxed in. They have no flexibility. They have to be strong, courageous risk-takers. And if they aren’t, they’re accused of not being real men.”

 

The good news: The time is ripe for change, Melzer tells ONE37pm in an exclusive interview. And there are actions you can take right now to move the needle.

If today’s gender power dynamics work in men’s favor, then why would men want to change that?

 

Scott Melzer: First of all, yes, men absolutely benefit from gender relations in our society. They enjoy more status and power. They’re earning more. They’re more likely to be in positions of authority, to be taken seriously, not to be subjected to sexual harrasment. But the power dynamic is more complicated than simply “Men win and everyone else loses.”

 

Many men don’t enjoy these privileges. There are huge disparities between men of different education levels, social class standings, and racial and ethnic identities. Many men just aren’t benefiting that much from their gender status.

 

Further, many men don’t feel particularly powerful in their day-to-day lives. They don’t walk around thinking, “I have a lot of power and resources.” They’re being told they do have these things, and maybe they do, but they don’t feel like that.

 

The other big piece is that there are costs to all those privileges and benefits. As a group, men are living shorter, more dangerous, less healthy lives. So they’re paying a price for following all these expectations that are assigned to them.

 

What expectations?

 

Melzer: Men are expected to be hypercompetitive, to show no weakness or vulnerability, and especially to be in control of themselves and others.

 

The truth is these standards are entirely unrealistic. We’re assigning men this impossible mission. No man can always be in control or always measure up. Inevitably men are going to fall short at various times in their lives. And the consequences of that are quite serious.

 

As a culture we’re paying a steep price for essentially setting men up to fail.

 

What is the price?

 

Melzer: What I’ve found in my research is that men who are unable or unwilling to live up to those body or breadwinner ideals, they feel not just like failed breadwinners but they feel like failed men. This is really important. It undermines their sense of gender identity. It’s not just they’ve lost a status; they’ve lost some of themselves. That leads to toxic behaviors.

 

Those toxic behaviors we can put in different buckets. One bucket is men are internalizing these failures. The unemployed men that I interviewed in my book, they’re experiencing feelings of depression, of inadequacy. They’re socially and emotionally withdrawing, isolating themselves. And they’re just suffering a great deal in their health and wellbeing.

 

And then some men, the toxic response to failure is to externalize those behaviors, often in the form of violence—whether that’s violence against women partners to regain control in a relationship, or violence against coworkers as with workplace shootings and stranger shootings. They’re trying to compensate, to find some other way to regain a sense of control.

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Is that why mental health issues and gun violence are so top of mind in our country right now?

 

Melzer: These are all important pieces of the puzzle. These talks [about gun violence] focus extensively on gun politics, and that debate deteriorates pretty quickly into "It’s A or B, it’s this or that."

 

But what’s not been given enough attention is the role of masculinity in gun violence. There’s a reason why boys are shooting up schools and girls aren’t. There’s a reason why more than 90 percent of violent crimes are committed by men. These are not biological or genetic things. They vary across cultures.

 

We’re teaching boys and men to be tough, strong, in control, to bottle up their emotions, show no weakness or vulnerability. Well, if you bottle something up, eventually it’s going to explode.
 

How does entrepreneurial culture feed into those expectations (or counteract them)?

 

Melzer: Many of these masculine characteristics reflect entrepreneurial ideals that emerged with industrial capitalism: fearlessness in risk-taking, the ability to control your situation and impose your will upon others. That “pull yourself up by the bootstraps,” “every man for himself” thinking has certainly been endemic to U.S. capitalist culture. And that’s just inseparable from masculine ideals. These things that are viewed as American characteristics are, to a great extent, American manhood characteristics.

 

But in entrepreneurial culture, failure is an inevitable part of the process. As an entrepreneur you’re taking risks, you’re pursuing ideas that have not been pursued before. That begs the question, what tools do we possess to manage failure in that context? If failure is inevitable and failure can be so undermining to men’s identity in a way that harms them and others, then how do we manage those expectations?

 

Conversely, though, looking at entrepreneurial culture [today], there also seems to be this greater sense of collaboration rather than hierarchy-driven cultures and intragroup competition. So I think that can offset a lot of these problematic workplace cultures. Also, creativity is being emphasized over rigidity, so I think there’s a blend of masculine and feminine characteristics. It’s not just a hypermasculine culture.

 

So maybe entrepreneurial culture is starting to shift. What other shifts are happening in our society that make change more attainable now than ever?


Melzer: I’d offer a threefold response. One: Breadwinner status is much more elusive than it used to be. Two: The costs have become too high for many men. Three: We’re much more aware of the costs of stress, heart disease, depression and isolation.

There’s also a greater desire among fathers to be more engaged parents. That’s really a big change if you think about the last three generations. Engaged fatherhood is much more the norm now, versus the 1950s distant model. That’s just outdated. For men to be physically and emotionally engaged with their children, that’s the expectation today. And you just can’t do that and also be a primary breadwinner who’s focused solely on career and not much else.

 

Lastly, we’re at a historical moment where the culmination of decades of feminist and other kinds of activism has made gender equality more normative and expected. If you look at data on younger generations, there’s a big generational gap in attitudes about gender equality, about work and family balance, and about manhood ideals.

 

The younger generation really wants more flexibility and autonomy. They’re more equality-minded than previous generations.

Does the #MeToo movement play into that?

 

Melzer: I think it does. It’s still unfolding, so the jury is out a little bit. But it’s part of that wave of challenges to patriarchal behavior, men being held more accountable for their toxic behaviors, for toxic workplace cultures to be changed. That’s a big difference. Just women’s presence alone doesn’t change the culture. The rules, the norms have to be changed. And that comes through women’s leadership and men’s ally-hood.

 

How can entrepreneurs join the resistance?

 

Melzer: In the context of entrepreneurs, it’s what can you do in your workplace and with your policies and workplace culture. That can look like a number of things.

 

Review your promotion policies, your sexual harassment policies, and policies that promote work-life balance.

 

One key to work-family balance is to promote it not just among women employees but men too. When you look at the research, a lot of times women get placed on the Mommy track; when employers provide paid family leave, women are more often taking advantage of that because they’re mostly still the primary caretakers. And the unintended consequence is that women become second-tier employees. So entrepreneurs need to be enacting policies and practices to avoid falling into that trap.

 

In some Scandinavian countries like Sweden, they have “use it or lose it” family leave policies. Both parents are allocated x number of days. If fathers don’t use the time they can’t give it to the mothers, and that encourages them to actually take some time off and prioritize their family.

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What everyday actions can entrepreneurs take?

 

Melzer: Lead by example. You can implement policies and benefits—but you institutionalize those benefits by taking advantage of them and by encouraging all employees to take advantage of them.

 

That means taking family leave and sick days, exhibiting leadership in the use of language, and seeking feedback from employees and assistance from experts.

 

Regularly survey employees about their needs, and establish communication channels flowing in all directions. Is the mission of the organization simply to sell more widgets? Provide the best products and service to customers? Reward shareholders? What about helping employees thrive personally and professionally?

 

By soliciting feedback, you demonstrate that being a leader doesn’t mean you have all the answers or are always in control. That helps erase harmful beliefs to the contrary.

 

What if you’re an employee, not a boss?

 

Melzer: As an employee, I would attempt to humanize myself and my family, sharing my responsibilities and needs—"I've been looking forward to my daughter's play on Saturday. You remember Lilly, she just turned 10 and she just lights up when she performs in front of her family." Or: "I play in an ultimate frisbee league tonight, and it's an important outlet for me to exercise and clear my mind. I'm fresher and sharper afterward."

 

And of course there may be other places to work if your boss isn't amenable to a better work-life balance. They should be, because happier and healthier people do better work and are less likely to leave, but short-term objectives too often trump long-term, big-picture thinking.

 

You mentioned language—how much do words matter? Is it worth removing the phrase “man up” from our vocabulary?

 

Melzer: I would say so. I asked the men in my book what “man up” actually means. It’s lost a lot of its meaning because the things we have associated with “manning up” are things women can do and do, in terms of being aggressive and overcoming obstacles. It’s not so gendered anymore.

 

But to come back to the larger point of language: Language is a reflection of culture.

But it also shapes culture. So it would be naive to assume it doesn’t have any impact. It can be exclusionary. It can be marginalizing. And it does establish a particular culture.

 

When someone demonstrates weakness, they’re referred to in all these feminine ways—“you’re a bitch,” “you’re a pussy”—all these things associated with weakness are marked and coded as feminine. It’s not unusual to see those phrases used in sports and also in workplaces. And it sends a message that men and masculine-marked things are more valued, and women and feminine-marked things are devalued. Which reflects our culture—we value toughness, assertiveness, authority, leadership, risk-taking. Those are all coded as masculine.

 

Things like caretaking, nurturing, empathy—that gets marked as feminine. We don’t value those things as much. Literally, we don’t pay people as much to do the jobs that do those things, and we don’t value those jobs as much.

Any thoughts on all the attention given to Elon Musk’s New York Times interview where he showed vulnerability?

 

Melzer: I think it shines a light on cultural contradictions where some of these old ideas are still in operation. When we think about being a leading entrepreneur, being a CEO, the qualities we associate with that are these very hyper-masculine traits. And choking up a little bit, however fleeting, is some display of vulnerability. And can you be this billionaire CEO-entrepreneur and be vulnerable at the same time? Those are incompatible in our cultural ideas of business leaders.

 

Conversely, there’s this opening where we’re encouraging [leaders] to display some vulnerability and human emotion. There are some models who are doing that and receiving positive attention.

 

Like whom?

 

Melzer: Some pro basketball players like Kevin Love and DeMar Derozan have talked openly about their mental health problems. Derozan talked about growing up in an under-resourced community and seeing lots of violence and how he had to put the armor on and toughen up in order to survive. And Kevin Love talked more about family-based depression and anxiety and panic attacks. So here we have two pro athletes who have lots of masculine capital but who feared being viewed as weak and feminine. But they've carved out a space. And others have stepped up in their wake.

 

DeAndre Levy, a pro ball player, has worked exhaustively on anti-sexual violence against women.

 

The actor Terry Crews, who’s this big muscular guy, has talked about being a survivor of sexual abuse.

 

Getting back to the idea of taking family leave, Mark Zuckerberg took some time off for the birth of his child. That’s an example of taking on a leadership role and trying to cultivate a culture of engaged fatherhood, not just work above all.

 

The bigger picture is that women do a lot of the leading on these issues. And men will step up at times and be allies. And at other times men will step up and be leaders.

 

And I think in many ways the people who don’t have that masculine capital to spend—the people who are just out there in the world—they’re helping to change the culture as much if not more so than the celebrities. It’s often the courage of everyday people who are changing the culture.