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How Gen Z could spell the end of toxic masculinity in the workplace

Research on gender and perceptions gives a glimpse into how the future workplace may evolve to be less toxic.

How Gen Z could spell the end of toxic masculinity in the workplace
[Photo: Jorge Vasconez/Unspalsh]

Will our future leaders have the same proclivity toward toxic masculinity (defined as the tendency to behave in chauvinistic and sexist ways at work) as they do now? And will we still worry about #MeToo moments in the future?

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Although there appears to be a public obsession with generational differences, such discussions are generally free of evidence, or inadvertently focused on age rather than generational data. Yes, younger people do tend to have quite different attitudes from older people, but rebellious and antisocial teenagers turn into conservative and boring adults. The psychological euphemism for this is maturity.

In order to actually compare generations—on personality, values, or any meaningful trait—you need to examine how people from the same age group change across the decades. Is the attitude toward work different among people in their early 20s today (Gen Z) in comparison to people who were in their 20s during the 1990s (Gen X)? It’s arguably best to understand each individual or person for what they are like, but it can still be culturally useful to understand the group-level values underpinning the social behaviors of different generations. A great deal of scientific research suggests that generations differ in their attitudes toward work-life balance, social causes or altruism, materialism, and narcissism.

One of the key questions this research can help us address is whether we can expect the leaders of the future to be different. For example, if we accept compelling evidence for the increase in narcissism across generations, it’s logical to be concerned about the typical level of competence and integrity that leaders may display in the future–something I discussed in my latest book. If the desire for status and power is on the decline, we may not have enough people interested in leadership roles, aside from narcissists and megalomaniacs.

Earlier discussions on generational differences tended to focus on millennials. But in many places, including the U.S., millennials are already the most widely represented generation, and with many of them as managers and leaders, there’s already plenty of data on how they lead. Conversely, there is still very limited data on Gen Z other than studies focusing on age rather than generational effects. So, what can we learn from more robust academic studies, particularly those examining data on values, attitudes, and personality?

Worryingly, some data suggests that while among the Gen Z cohort the definition of femininity has broadened to encapsulate more dominant, aspirational, and assertive traits, this same generation is showing a nostalgic admiration for old-school masculinity. Boys are embracing a more traditional and macho approach to being a man.

If this is true, there would be little reason to hope that toxic masculinity is on the decline. But there are three other, data-driven factors that suggest a shift in the workplace of the future.

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Psychological research mapping gender stereotypes over the past seven decades that women are now seen to be equally as competent as men, if not more. This means stereotypes have adjusted to reality and against what the prevalence of sexism and socioeconomic barriers to women’s success suggested. Women managed to either catch up with or outperform men on most measures of achievement over the same period of time.

Stylistic differences in how women and men tend to be perceived do remain. Men are still being seen as more driven and assertive, and women are regarded as being better with people. The ability to display empathy, have higher levels of emotional intelligence, and be kind and caring, should give women of all generations a big leadership advantage. But it seems we are still drawn to overconfident and narcissistic leaders. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have the power—or competence—to put individuals who have the opposite profile into leadership positions, regardless of gender. In fact, when we do, the results are significantly better for everyone.

Over the last few decades, women have tended to become less feminine in the traditional sense of the word, whereas men have generally remained unchanged. This may mirror cultural changes in opportunities and demands for women that haven’t affected men.

Going forward, the increased social pressure organizations face to tackle harassment, sexism, and other counterproductive work behaviors would make a candidate who identifies as female less of a potential liability for leadership positions. Equally, one could easily reduce the likelihood of toxic events if the men who are chosen to be leaders have a more emotionally intelligent profile.

There will always be enough decent people of all genders to select for leadership roles. Culture is just a reflection of the values and behaviors of the leaders, and it trickles down to dictate what actions are rewarded and sanctioned, both formally and informally. We do not need to wait for a more moral generation to arrive in order to fix our leadership issues. All we need to do is make better choices, irrespective of people’s age, gender, or generation.

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