Addressing the 'Boys will be boys' syndrome

Last Updated : 21 June 2023, 07:56 IST
Last Updated : 21 June 2023, 07:56 IST
Last Updated : 21 June 2023, 07:56 IST
Last Updated : 21 June 2023, 07:56 IST

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India's female wrestlers protested recently against the alleged systemic sexual harassment by functionaries of the Wrestling Federation of India. It was just the tip of the iceberg beneath which toxic masculinity, or "boys will be boys" culture plays out — sport, showbiz and the entertainment industries.

"Boys will be boys" is a term often heard in schools and playgrounds, used to describe some normal masculine tendencies such as being brash, aggressive and rough. Normalised in childhood, such behaviour spills over into adulthood and into the workplace.

In workplaces, this culture of toxic masculinity is referred to as "bro culture"— a term that is synonymous with a male-dominated culture.

American journalist Emily Chang interviewed hundreds of women working in the tech industry for her book Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys' Club of Silicon Valley. This was an instant bestseller and received significant media attention and critical acclaim.

Many high-profile cases have come out recently and lawsuits have been filed on companies. This is taking a toll directly through turnover and image and indirectly through poor workplace culture and poor employee wellbeing. Companies are taking notice as this is affecting their wallet.

A $35 million settlement between video game developer Activision Blizzard and the US Securities and Exchange Commission comes on the heels of actions by both the California Department of Fair Housing and Employment and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the company’s so-called frat boy culture.

Meanwhile, a class action suit accuses Twitter of disproportionately targeting women for layoffs, allegedly spurred on by the sexist tone set by Elon Musk, the company’s new owner.

How bro culture affects women

Women are underrepresented in India’s startup ecosystem. Less than 9% of its founders are women, according to a 2016 study by startup database Xeler8. And out of the 670 Indian startups that received funding in 2016, just 3% were founded by women.

As a result, men dominate leadership positions in the corporate world, and the misogyny and patriarchy of India’s society get magnified in the workplace.

Harsh Verma, Project lead at a consulting firm who has developed DEI campaigns at multiple MNCs says, "Women often face the pressure of having to work harder to prove themselves. They can experience backlash when they exhibit behaviours traditionally associated with masculinity, such as assertiveness and anger. This can hinder their professional growth and perpetuate gender biases."

"Diversity and inclusion efforts get undermined when a culture of toxic masculinity persists as opposed to a culture of mutual respect. In such environments, the power dynamics of a toxic-male culture overpower initiatives aimed at improving diversity and inclusion," he adds.

A toxic male work environment can increase employee turnover and reduce employee loyalty, easily swaying them to external job offers. According to a survey conducted by Trust Radius in 2021, 72% of women in tech have worked at a company where “bro culture” is pervasive.

Rukmini Iyer, a leadership and organisation development consultant, says, "While the bro culture is often spoken about these days, it is not always overt or easy to call out. The most visible form is the gender pay gap."

"It also plays out sometimes under the garb of 'sensitivity and practicality'. I have had hiring managers tell me that the work involves staying up late at work and travelling, which women may sometimes be unable to manage. They justify the hiring of men saying they can manage work pressures better, but there is no attempt to challenge social inequities in the process and explore what might make men share those 'responsibilities at home' that women are presumably more saddled with. And of course, there are no conversations with the women in question about how they intend to cope with work pressures, and if they have appropriate support systems already in place," she adds.

Bro culture is characterised by a number of behaviours and attitudes that can be harmful to women and other marginalised groups. These include:

Exclusion: Bro culture often involves excluding women from social events and informal networks. This can make it difficult for women to build relationships with their colleagues and advance in their careers.

Harassment: Bro culture can lead to sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination. Women may be subjected to unwanted advances or comments or may be passed over for promotions.

Toxic masculinity: Bro culture often promotes toxic masculinity, which can be harmful to both men and women. Men may feel pressurised to conform to traditional gender roles and exhibit stereotypically masculine behaviours, such as aggression and dominance.

Lack of diversity: Bro culture can also contribute to a lack of diversity in the workplace. When men dominate leadership positions, they may be more likely to hire and promote other men, leading to a lack of representation for women and other marginalised groups.

Addressing bro culture

There are several steps for companies to consider:

Onboarding: Use the onboarding process to establish a healthy work culture. Address toxic behaviours early on and set expectations for an inclusive environment that rejects bro culture.

Strong HR policies: Implement clear policies that explicitly prohibit discrimination and harassment. Ensure these policies are well-communicated to all employees and consistently enforced.

Challenge stereotypical behaviours: Be mindful of what is considered "normal" within your company. Avoid falling into echo chambers where problematic behaviours go unnoticed. Address and rectify small infractions to prevent the normalisation of a toxic culture.

Provide training: Offer training sessions on unconscious biases, going beyond basic awareness. Specifically address gender blind spots, shedding light on assumptions individuals may hold regarding gender roles, capabilities, and behaviours.

Lead by example: Company leaders should actively promote and demonstrate inclusive behaviours, serving as role models for a respectful and inclusive workplace. They should also address the formation of informal male networks that may perpetuate bro culture.

Rukmini Iyer says, "As a woman entrepreneur, I have had to challenge the male way of doing business by saying the fact that when male clients ask me for meetings over a drink in the evening, it is an unfair ask. A male competitor may jump at the opportunity to network that way, but as a woman my first concern is safety, and I wonder if the person is decent enough to have a drink with. In setting this norm of discussing business after hours, there is no concern about the fact that some people may be caregivers (including men) and therefore may not be able to take up this networking and visibility opportunity simply because of the time and place offered. In the process, more and more men end up getting opportunities that others cannot avail of. There is structural inequity in the way business is done."

Bro culture and the "boys will be boys” syndrome reinforce gender stereotypes and contribute to a culture of toxic masculinity. Children should be taught early on that it is okay to show emotions and that being vulnerable is a sign of strength. Otherwise, they may well become men attracted to environments that allow the “boys will be boys” culture to flourish, because what starts in the playground often ends up in board rooms.

(Reji Varghese is the managing director of a fixture-building company. Avril Quadros is a certified ICF coach)

Published 21 June 2023, 07:40 IST

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