Monday, July 27, 2020

A New Generation of Male Leaders Provide Insights on How to De Gender Leadership and Remove Stigma of Using Family-Work Policies

Principal Author: Rangita de Silva de Alwis, Associate Dean of International Affairs,  University of Pennsylvania Carey  Law School  and Leader in Practice at WAPPP, Harvard Kennedy School (2019-2021)

Co-author: Natalie Runyon, Director, Talent, Inclusion & Culture, Thomson Reuters

Rangita de Silva de Alwis thanks Vice Dean David Wilkins of Harvard Law School for inspiring this research and Dean Theodore Ruger, Dean of Penn Law School for supporting this project. 

Reflecting at a time when we are once again engulfed in racial tension, "The ghost of slavery and the curse of racism still threaten us 400 years later..." writes Wendell Nil Larye Adjetey, the W.L. Mackenzi King Fellow and Lecturer at Harvard University. While the murder of George Floyd, pushes our nation into a public reckoning on our racist history, in the same way that the MeToo Movement challenged our collective conscience about sexism in the workplace, we urge an intersectional understanding of systemic bias and an intersectional approach to addressing those biases.

The experiences of women of color cannot be collapsed into the narrow boundaries of race or gender that relegate the identity of women of color to a location that resists a more dynamic understanding of the complexity of identity. For far too long, the law has overlooked the rights of LGBTQ and transgender people. The recent Supreme Court decision has begun the long process of naming the clear intersection of discrimination on the basis of sex and LGBTQ discrimination. However, corporate America and society at large have a long way to go for true equity in the workplace of the future. To expedite this journey in January 2020, Rangita de Silva de Alwis, Associate Dean of International Affairs at Penn Law initiated a research project interviewing Gen Z men, which is among the first of its kind, to look at a way to frame the various intersections of race, gender and multiple identities in the context of allyship for a better workplace of the future. The study revealed an impressive and deep understanding of the role of power dynamics in groups and intersectional nuances for effective allyship among Gen Z men and offered their recommendations concerning work-family policies and gender norms to create a more equitable workplace.

Challenging Masculinized Institutional Structures

Gendered spheres both in work and in private life have the effect of enshrining masculine norms. These masculine/feminine roles date back to the 19th century. To combat these masculine norms and gendered roles, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s litigation strategy in the 1970s was to deconstruct gender by challenging institutional structures that reinforced separate spheres based on gender.[i] In the landmark cases of the 1970s, Ginsburg challenged the Idaho law that favored men over women as administrators of their wives estates[ii] and laws that required breadwinner wives (but not breadwinner husbands) to prove that their spouses were in fact dependent in order to receive certain medical and dental benefits.[iii] Ginsburg also challenged federal laws that gave survivor benefits to homemaker wives of breadwinner husbands but not to homemaker husbands of breadwinner wives.[iv]

Joan C. William argues that: “Placing masculinity at the center of feminist analysis is not the same as placing men there. Instead it involves recognizing that workplace gender bias against women stems from masculine norms in jobs that historically were held by men.”[v] She posits that not only are masculine norms harmful to women’s advancement in the workplace, but that they create pressures on men to perform in a way that is harmful to their health and family stability.

Work-Family Policy Solutions from Gen Z Men

Negative societal attitudes toward parental leave and work-family policies, in general, appear to be changing among younger male white-collar workers. Research from Penn Law and Thomson Reuters on perspectives of allyship among Gen Z men revealed that 88 percent of them indicated that they are likely-to-very-likely to use work-family policies, and 57 percent stated that they were likely not to be influenced by negative perceptions of taking advantage of these policies by their male peers and leadership at their employers.

To emphasize the point about not being influenced by the stigma of peers or executives, one man at Penn Law shared about how he watched the difficulties of his family having to “re-arrange work arrangements, schedules and take time off to help care for his grandfather who had progressive Alzheimer’s disease.”
While employers more and more are offering work-family policies, which include parental leave, flexible hours and remote working, is great progress, the gender gap between moms and dads using them and the corresponding career advancement gap will continue if the organizational culture continues to penalize employees for taking advantage of these policies. To address the challenge, two Gen Z men put it simply. 
  • “Advocating for flexible hours, working from home…helps men and women, and …Flextime should already be policy, and part-time work at commensurate pay should be allowed,” according to one man.
  • Another offered that as a current father and husband, he “need[s] flexible hours, work-from-home options…because I intend to be present for my family and give my wife the same opportunities I have. As a father, I intend one day to work many hours from home, having flex time and, if the case requires, part-time.”

The Gen Z men at Penn Law participating in the research offered several ideas to remove the stigma:

Offer the same amount of leave for moms and dads. Several of those we interviewed indicated that it was important for parental leave to be equal between mothers and fathers—fully paid with the same amount of time off. To underscore the point, one man commented, “As long as you’re only extending childcare leave to [only] women, you’re enforcing the stereotype that their role is child care…Extending it to both parents allows the family to make whatever decision is best for them regarding parental care and child care regardless of gender.”

To reinforce the point, another Penn Law student commented that most of the discrimination events he had witnessed against women in the workplace was in relation to soon-to-be mothers passed over for an important project or promotion because they were about to give birth and be away from the office on parental leave. He offered that “a way of trying to combat this…is to mandatorily grant to male employees parental leave equal to women.”

Mandate taking parental leave. Several of the men suggested that organizations should require parents to take the full amount of parental leave to close the usage gap between moms and dads and to solve the career advancement gap between men women. “I think in general most policies shouldn’t be gender-specific…[and that] everyone should get paid during parental leave and it should be mandatory,” one interviewee said.

The consequence of avoiding the mandate reinforces the status quo. One student shared a story about a discussion of extending equal family leave in his constitutional law class. He stated, “A lot of times because of the types of structural biases we have, women will still end up taking the leave and men will not.” He further elaborated that some members in his class brought up that “even if they had parental leave, they would feel that they could not take it because of the bias in the workplace that they were expected to work through his wife’s pregnancy, delivery, and early child care” because that the unwritten norm.”

Even the young Japanese lawyer talked about the tensions inherent in work-family policies. He said that he is “not likely to use work-family policies,” but saw the benefit of such policies. A Japanese law student, dad of daughters, and someone who quit working in Japan to come to the U.S. for enrollment in law school full time “came to know how hard taking care of them [his children] is” after his family arrived in the States. He added, “This is a really difficult task, so I can guess several men might think that these policies are not beneficial for themselves, though I don’t agree with them.”

De-gendering Leadership and Unmasking Masculinized Expectations

Society has been on a journey to break down what is considered masculine and feminine behaviors and characteristics with the expansion of transgender and gender non-conforming inclusion, but the traditional norms governing what is masculine and feminine is still very much pervasive in our society starting from the very beginning of life through “gendering” baby clothes between blue and pink for boys and girls, respectively. 

Penn Law and the Legal Executive Institute sought to explore this evolution through interviews with Gen Z men in law school asking them about their perspectives on masculinity and leadership and how they impact attitudes towards allyship. You can read emerging insights from the research here.
Most of the law students interviewed at Penn Law shared that hyper-masculine behaviors, which include expectations of self-sufficiency, acting tough, sticking to rigid gender roles, acting heterosexual, not showing emotion, and showing aggression to resolve conflicts are some of the conventional societal expectations. Only 20 percent indicated that they had not been impacted by these norms.

The accounts below show the variety of how social definitions of masculinity adversely impacting these men, underscoring the need to de-gender leadership behaviors because men are carrying these societal norms into the workplace:
  • Tension around crying. One interviewee stated, “Crying is apparently not masculine at all; only women can cry!...But it was a very real thing that I dealt with…the rejection of all that had been deemed “feminine” by the powers that be, whether they be my culture, parents or the media.”
  • Conforming to rigid gender roles. One man characterized masculinity as “100 percent performance.” As a bi-sexual man, he states, “I have to perform the way I act, the way my voice is, the way I move my hands, and the way I dress...All of this is also fundamentally tied to stereotypes about masculinity.”
  • Acting tough. Another man revealed that perceptions around toughness had impacted him his whole life. He was bullied as a kid because he was perceived by others as weak and “felt pressure to work out and put on muscle to make myself seem more intimidating.”
  • Demonstrating heterosexuality. Still another person interviewed admitted how peers questioned his sexual orientation when he advocated on behalf of women. “I definitely feel judgment when I speak out on behalf of women…. You get comments questioning whether you’re straight (heterosexual) or not…”.

One-fifth of the men expressed a more nuanced set of experiences in the need to adhere to masculinity, and the shift in understanding during the journey from childhood to adulthood was the common theme. One Gen Z man of color revealed that his belief system about masculinity was informed by his religion and ethnicity, “but as I have become an adult, I am no longer directed by such stereotypical/trope related sentiments.” Another male student explained that while he and his peers were socialized to comply with gender norms in the past they don’t apply “much to his experience now.” However, he noted that he knows a number of people who would identify with hyper-masculine behavior descriptors.

Finally, a small minority—ten percent—outright rejected the need to obey the “rules of masculinity.” To illustrate, one man elaborated. “I have quite enjoyed, from an early age, showing dissent through non-conformity with masculine norms…and the critical self-analysis that has resulted, in which I spend time thinking about whether certain attributes I possess are a product of societal norms or my own choice.”

No matter where one falls on the spectrum of the giving in to the insistence of gender norms by society, what is true is that they do not serve men, women or GNC individuals and that there is too much emphasis on applying a gender label to leadership traits, behaviors, hobbies, and apparel. In the words of a fellow participant and fellow member of the allyship research team, “We’re at a point where we’ve acquiesced in the gendering of (or overt association with a particular sexual orientation) fragrances, interior and exterior car colors, hairstyles, sports interest, and dance or acting ability, to name just a few. This is a status quo worthy of prompt disruption. We’re hurting one another and ourselves when we agree to play by rules, we did not ourselves write.”

Thanks David Wilkins of Harvard Law School and Dean Theodore Ruger of Penn Law School for their support.

[i] Joan C. Williams, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter 93, 115 (Harvard University Press 2010).
[ii] See e.g. Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71 (1971).
[iii] See e.g. Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677 (1973).
[iv] See e.g. Weinberger v. Weisenfeld, 420 U.S. 636 (1975).
[v] Id. at 98.

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