The term toxic masculinity has, over the past 25 years or so, come into both scholarly and popular use in the United States,1 becoming a kind of shorthand for indicating traditionally masculine behavior that oppresses and injures others—one of the pervasive effects of a society that privileges and empowers (predominantly white) men over all others, also known as systemic patriarchy. Some have argued that the term gives men who engage in problematic behavior a pass: if they can point to a larger cultural issue, they can avoid personal responsibility for their actions.2 But for many, the term gives language to the daily experience of how male privilege shows up in the world in countless ways, both large and small.
According to researcher and author Michael Salter, the term originated in the now-infamous “mythopoetic men’s movement of the 1980s and ’90s,” coined as a means of distinguishing harmful masculinity from the spiritual, warrior masculinity the movement celebrated.3 More currently, the term has found a home in gender and power discourse, which recognizes gendered behavior as culturally constructed rather than innate, and that—given how deeply embedded patriarchy is globally—people of all genders in any and all positions of power are at risk of perpetuating the systemic privileging of men and traditionally masculine behaviors and practices.
Consider, for example, the work sphere. Virtually anyone who has attended a diverse meeting of any size can point to a cultural acceptance in the workplace of (predominantly white) men’s tendencies to dominate the conversation, talk over others, and take credit for others’ ideas. And as more and more (predominantly white) women have gained leadership roles, they have very often taken on the same behaviors, the understanding being that therein lies the road to “success.”
The fact that when men exhibit aggressive behavior they are generally viewed as “confident” and “decisive,” while women behaving the exact same way are regularly described as “nasty” and even pathologized as “unfeminine,” “unnatural,” and thus “dangerous” to “society,” feels like an outdated cliché, and yet these views are continually and pervasively perpetuated. This has served to maintain the irrational perception that men somehow innately have greater leadership ability, which in turn allows the gender wage gap and the overrepresentation of men in leadership roles, among many other societal ills, to continue largely unabated.
The nonprofit sector is no exception. Systemic patriarchy seeps into how organizations are designed and structured, and toxic masculinity informs the way organizations behave internally and interact with one another. It governs how success is defined, how roles are structured, how human resource policies are set, and how organizations communicate about their work and the constituents they serve. Patriarchy is an invisible force within organizational culture, and toxic masculinity the shadowy, slippery beast that goes largely unseen and unnamed but whose clear path of destruction is widely apparent.
Finally, critically, as an oppressive system based in power, systemic patriarchy cannot be separated from the context of systemic racism and white supremacy as part of the larger framework blocking liberation.4 Feminist scholar bell hooks describes race and gender as being fundamentally intertwined, as are the associated systems of privilege and oppression.5 Given our intersectional identities, effects of systemic oppression can be compounded depending on one’s identity. White men benefit exponentially from the effects of both race and gender privilege, for example, while women of color experience oppression simultaneously due to racial and gender discrimination.6
Toxic Masculinity in Government Leadership
As they grow up, men are conditioned to expect to be in positions of power, that their ideas and opinions matter more than others, that they should take anything they believe to be theirs (and as much of it as they would like), and that this preferential treatment is their birthright. A prominent example of what this can lead to in unchecked leadership comes in the form of former president Donald Trump. In fact, it could be argued that four years of the Trump administration brought toxic masculinity to the forefront of US and even global culture on a whole new level.
Prior to his election in 2016, Trump was caught on camera bragging about sexually assaulting women. (He later dismissed it as mere “locker-room banter.”7) He regularly used his platform on Twitter to bully people, notably including then-16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. His bravado-filled approach to foreign policy left the United States disconnected from allies and with diminished standing on the world stage.8 He publicly supported the white supremacist, “chauvinist” Proud Boys organization, and defended Wisconsin shooter Kyle Rittenhouse, demonstrating allegiance to male domestic terrorists.9 He has consistently downplayed the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic and mocked people for wearing protective face masks, going against the recommendations of science and health experts and putting people’s health in danger.10 And for those for whom his explicit support and co-enactment of white supremacy and toxic masculinity still wasn’t quite clear, Trump’s refusal to accept having lost the 2020 presidential election, ongoing promotion of baseless conspiracy theories, and involvement in the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol should have whisked away any remaining veils.
But while he is certainly guilty of regressively promoting unapologetic toxic masculinity, Trump is but a symptom of the larger structural issue in American (and indeed global) culture. Many male leaders wield their gender-based privilege with wild abandon and brute force, but Trump has done so very strategically, in reaction to broader societal changes seen in the United States during the Obama administration. Trump’s rise resonated with many white men and women who saw themselves becoming the minority in the United States (and globally) and sought to harden their grip on the privileged status they had come to expect as “normal” and deserved.11 A recent study found that a preference for hegemonic masculinity (i.e., idealizing hypermasculinity) strongly predicted both men’s and women’s support for Trump and their likelihood of viewing him positively, regardless of other characteristics such as race and level of education.12 Trump lost the election, but more than 71 million people voted for a second Trump term in 2020, which indicates that the root causes of his appeal to voters are still very much alive.13
Toxic Masculinity in the Workplace
It shouldn’t surprise us that our workplace culture mirrors, across sectors, the intersection of patriarchy and white supremacy in our government. A number of recent studies offer insights into how toxic masculinity functions in the work sphere. A 2018 study, for example, that examined several characteristics associated with traditional masculinity—including dominance, individualism, and outward displays of strength within the context of the American workplace—found that masculinity is something that regularly needs to be proven in order for a man to maintain status within the social hierarchy.14 This pattern has led to many workplaces in the United States having what the researchers call an ongoing “masculinity contest,” wherein people engage in behaviors to explicitly display masculinity in order to assert dominance.15 Examples include seeking to control shared resources and the distribution of work, displays of physical strength, and even harassment and belittling of others. They also found that in male-dominated spaces where hypermasculinity was normalized, everyone was compelled to some degree to participate in the “contest” regardless of gender.16 This dynamic creates a system of winners and losers among coworkers, with endless jockeying to increase one’s standing.
Another study from the same year expanded on this research and found that male-dominated work cultures are also fertile ground for toxic leadership behaviors.17 Toxic leadership is characterized by a leader who is not only ineffective in their role, but also one whose actions cause ongoing harm to those working “under” them and to the organization overall. There is a clear correlation between a hypermasculine culture and toxic leadership, which leads to higher-than-average employee turnover, less positive work attitudes, a lack of healthy work-life balance, and even psychological distress.18 Many toxic leaders have risen to their position due to their ability to “win” at the “contest of masculinity,” and so they perpetuate this dynamic and encourage toxic behavior in others through their example. The study found that in workplaces with hypermasculine cultures, there may be a short-term increase in employee engagement and productivity but that ultimately the long-term effects of such a culture are harmful to employees and destructive to the organization.19
A study from 2011 explores how traditionally masculine behaviors often serve as a barrier to key leadership functions, including bringing people together around a common goal or mission.20 Hypermasculinity places a high value on the power of the individual and dominance over others, which hinders interpersonal communication and collaborative efforts, which, within the polarizing culture of patriarchy, are viewed as traditionally “feminine” approaches. (This speaks to why transgender, intersex, and other nonbinary gender identities are so valuable to society—in fact, many cultures elevate trans, intersex, and nonbinary folks as essential to humanity’s evolution to higher consciousness.) The study also identifies that a strongly masculine leadership culture inhibits employees’ overall willingness to express ideas and opinions.21 (In light of this, it is recommended that workplaces with hypermasculine cultures should at the very least seek out formal structures that facilitate cooperation, such as cross-departmental working groups and meeting protocols that allow for everyone to speak in turn. Of course, much more substantive transformative work that prioritizes racial justice is needed in such workplaces to shift them from their white, hypermasculine orientation.)
A 2016 study examines the impact of an organization’s formal hierarchy on the perceived leadership abilities of people through the lens of their gender.22 Using performance evaluation data, the research found that for organizations with a strong, formal hierarchy, men are perceived as having significantly greater leadership ability relative to women in similar positions.23 This is somewhat of a double-edged sword, since the effects of masculine individualism can cause men to quickly lose status within a company when the company’s performance declines. In organizations with more egalitarian structures, the leadership abilities of men and women were viewed more equally, but when the organization faltered as a whole, a disproportionate amount of blame was placed on women leaders.24 This study underscores the omnipresence of systemic patriarchy within organizations and the urgent need to shift toward more equitable outcomes for women, especially women of color, in the workplace.
I have had my own experiences with organizational leaders and toxic masculinity throughout the past 16 years of my career in the nonprofit sector. Working with both men and women leaders, I have witnessed the harm to individuals and organizations caused by behaviors rooted in systemic patriarchy and white supremacy. These experiences have served as valuable lessons and opportunities for me to reflect on the kind of leader I aspire to be. Below, I recount my experience of three main types of toxic masculine behavior that predominate in the workplace: hypercompetitiveness; dominance and intimidation; and paternalism. My hope is that these descriptions will help others to recognize toxic behaviors and dynamics to take steps toward greater equity.
I worked with a white male executive (we’ll call him W.M.) who was driven by a sense of competition, both internally (within the organization) and externally (in relation to peer organizations). He pitted departments and individuals against one another and delighted in watching the drama that unfolded as people lobbied for attention and resources. W.M. openly played favorites, and his fickle disposition meant that one could move from golden child to outcast and back again all within a few days.
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He viewed the organization’s success as essentially a matter of winning or losing. When the nonprofit was not selected for funding from a particular foundation or government source, he would bad-mouth peer organizations that had been awarded funding. When the organization was successful in securing grants and contracts, W.M. celebrated the fact that other groups had tried and failed. To him, organizational success was fundamentally defined as being relative to other organizations; it could only be measured through comparison instead of being driven by more meaningful metrics related to the organization’s core mission.
An overly competitive environment such as this is not only distracting for employees and diminishes overall productivity but also results in a great deal of interpersonal conflicts, making for an uncomfortable workplace. At the same time, a highly competitive leader with a propensity to be excited by only the newest ideas can lead to a lack of clarity in the organizational mission, which is ultimately confusing to funders and other stakeholders. Organizations investing in potential new programs is not inherently a bad strategy, but the breakneck pace at which some organizations pivot feeds unhealthy internal competition among staff and leaves core programs underresourced.
Dominance and Intimidation
I worked with a white female executive (we’ll call her W.F.) whose leadership style was akin to that of a mob boss. W.F. had internalized toxic masculine culture and perpetuated it through her words and deeds. Her strategies included public humiliation, unyielding intimidation, and revenge on those who dared to stand in her way. Employees rarely offered dissenting opinions or suggested alternative paths, since those who did were immediately crushed. Employees bit their tongues and went along with her misguided ideas, and would then brace themselves to take the blame when results did not meet expectations. W.F.’s leadership through fear left employees disempowered and feeling devalued as professionals and human beings.
Those who lead in this manner seek to project an extreme sense of confidence at all costs and demonstrate little compassion for others. Employees simply cannot thrive in such a harsh work environment; thus, the result is a high turnover and low levels of job satisfaction. It is not only ineffective and short-sighted—burning bridges and recklessly causing collateral damage lead to increasing isolation. Leaders who use fear and intimidation can also expect that potential allies and collaborators will progressively avoid them and prefer instead to form partnerships with others rooted in mutual respect and shared goals. Especially in subsets of the nonprofit sector that are more localized or those with a narrow focus, one’s reputation is precious currency.
I have worked with leaders whose deep-seated paternalistic worldviews drove their actions and attitudes. For organizations focused on serving people from marginalized groups and historically underresourced communities, paternalism often presents as a savior complex, especially when wealthy white men are at the helm. This outsider perspective marks constituents as “other,” fueling ongoing problematic assumptions surrounding the needs and aspirations of the individuals and communities one aims to serve. It is also highly problematic when leaders leverage a community’s status as historically disadvantaged to motivate their networks of wealthy supporters to donate to the organization.
Paternalistic leaders hold the mindset that they “know better” than the staff working “under” them, and so they feel justified in withholding important information, making unilateral decisions, and resisting transparency. From their perspective, their positional power does not warrant accountability to staff and constituents for their decisions and behavior. Executives who operate in this way resist feedback and frequently respond with defensiveness when challenged by others. Given their lack of transparency, paternalistic leaders may operate with more “flexible” morals and standards, since they can take action first and then subsequently craft an explanation to suit their needs. For leaders lacking a strong ethical foundation, a paternalistic approach enables them to act without concern for consistency or long-term implications.
Over time, this kind of relative morality and situational decision-making can be disastrous to an organization, let alone its constituents. On multiple occasions, I have witnessed a nonprofit pivot away from its core mission and programs in pursuit of an esteemed funding source, courting them through any means necessary, including being dishonest about the organization’s activities and financial position. I have observed executives who actively pursued partnerships with prestigious or trendy organizations as a means of raising their organization’s profile through association. These collaborations were completely empty, only for optical purposes, and did little to nothing to further the organization’s stated mission. Far-reaching decisions such as these hold huge ramifications for staff and constituents, and when made for reasons not strongly connected to the needs of those the organization aims to serve, the lack of consensus can be confusing and demoralizing to staff. While actions like this may provide fleeting benefits, patterns of deception eventually become known to nonprofit peers and funders alike, which presents significant risk for long-term success and can even lead to legal exposure.
When organizational leaders deviate from established policies and norms, they undermine their credibility and trust with staff. I have seen staff intentionally play into the weaknesses of paternalistic leaders to privately negotiate special arrangements, such as additional paid time off and other benefits that were outside the formally established practices for all employees. Eventually when these things came to light, staff became angry that equal treatment was not extended to all employees and that policies had not been applied uniformly. This led to bitter conflicts among staff members where resentment and feelings of having been slighted affected the performance of individual staff members as well as team cohesion.
* * *
Of course, as a white person in a male body, I myself am not immune from perpetrating toxic masculinity. Without question, my experience of the world has been fundamentally shaped by my race and gender. The privileged status afforded me is an incalculable unearned benefit, one that conditioned me with an internalized sense of superiority, which I must continuously unlearn and dismantle. Being white and male means that I am often excused for the harmful things I have said and done to others, as well as for the times I have stood by in situations that hurt others when I could have intervened. These are both harms I am aware of (among others that my privilege has largely shielded me from even recognizing). I have taken action without examining my biases. I have engaged in contests of masculinity to further my own interests. I have talked over women during meetings, dismissed their ideas, and failed to acknowledge their contributions. I have devalued others from a paternalistic position, assuming to understand their feelings and desires. And I have fallen short of my own ideals and behaved in manners that I knew were wrong simply because it was easier in the moment to do so. To be clear, I am not offering excuses for my past or potential future behavior; I offer these examples toward taking responsibility. Noticing, correcting, and making amends are necessary steps in any journey toward social justice.
Indeed, since men undoubtedly benefit most from systemic patriarchy, we must take responsibility for the primary burden of undoing this inequity. We need to examine our own unconscious biases, behaviors, and practices with regard to gender and race, and become aware of how we perpetuate toxic masculinity.25 We must make a deliberate and focused effort to minimize our own toxic behaviors while calling them out in other men. On a more structural level, we must step up to leverage our privilege, not to further our own benefit as has historically been the case but instead to further the cause of equity for all. Given the power granted to us by society because of our gender, we have an obligation to speak up and take action to help improve outcomes for women and other marginalized groups.
Beyond individuals are the structures designed around systematized hypermasculinity, and the nonprofit sector has the opportunity not only to improve the chances of success for our organizations but also to serve as a model for more equitable workplaces across the board. Beyond creating a more just society, working to undermine toxic male culture can have countless benefits for organizations, especially when these efforts are truly embraced by leaders. As suggested by both the literature and my own personal experiences, hypermasculine work cultures and leaders who embody toxic masculinity cause harm to individual employees as well as whole organizations. It is true that, especially for those nonprofits and other organizations that may have less than ideal resources available for their work, toxic masculinity can be a significant obstacle in an already challenging landscape; but the nonprofit sector, being explicitly in service to the civil sector, is well positioned to lead the way into a more equitable future free of toxic masculinity.
Finally, predominantly white organizations, and organizations led by white founders in particular, are in special need of self-examination: noticing, correcting, making amends. Such organizations must surface unconscious biases and work to maintain awareness of privilege in the spaces the sector inhabits. They must listen more and talk/direct less. They must resist the tendency to center themselves and their experiences, making space for and centering instead those they serve as well as a new generation of leaders of color—especially Black women, who have been showing up and leading the way with little recognition for generation after generation. They must call out inequity when they witness it and support others in doing so, especially those who do not have the same privilege and status the established systems have afforded. This calls all of us to tap into the deep wells of compassion, curiosity, humility, and courage that exist for humanity to drink from—and then, get to work.
- See Michael Salter, “The Problem With a Fight Against Toxic Masculinity,” The Atlantic, February 27, 2019.
- Carol Harrington, “What is “Toxic Masculinity” and Why Does it Matter?,” Men and Masculinities (July 17, 2020).
- Salter, “The Problem With a Fight Against Toxic Masculinity”; see also Phil McCombs, “Men’s Movement Stalks the Wild Side,” Washington Post, February 3, 1991.
- Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, Dismantling Racism, 2016 Workbook, Dismantling Racism Works (dRworks), 2016, dismantlingracism.org.
- bell hooks, “the imperialism of patriarchy,” in Ain’t I a Woman? (New York: Routledge, 2014), 87–118.
- Shirley R. Steinberg and Joe L. Kincheloe, “Chapter 1: Setting the Context for Critical Multi/Interculturalism: The Power Blocs of Class Elitism, White Supremacy, and Patriarchy,” in Multi/Intercultural Conversations: A Reader, Counterpoints 94 (2001): 3–30.
- David A. Fahrenthold, “Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005,” Washington Post, October 8, 2016.
- Rachel Emond, “American Foreign Policy Has a Masculinity Problem: A Discourse Analysis of the Iran Deal” (honors thesis, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, March 29, 2018.
- Rachael Levy and Erin Ailworth, “Who Are the Proud Boys? Canada Names Far-Right Group a Terrorist Organization,” Wall Street Journal, last modified February 5, 2021.
- Danielle Kurtzleben, “Trump Has Weaponized Masculinity As President. Here’s Why It Matters,” Weekend Edition Saturday, NPR, October 28, 2020.
- Emily Badger and Nate Cohn, “White Anxiety, and a President Ready to Address It,” New York Times, July 20, 2019.
- Theresa K. Vescio and Nathaniel E. C. Schermerhorn, “Hegemonic masculinity predicts 2016 and 2020 voting and candidate evaluations,” PNAS 118, no. 2 (January 12, 2021).
- Edgar Villanueva, “Trump May Be Gone (Almost) But Toxic Masculinity Is Here to Stay,” The Advocate, November 18, 2020.
- Jennifer L. Berdahl et al., “Work as a Masculinity Contest,” in “Work as a Masculinity Contest,” ed. Jennifer L. Berdahl, Marianne Cooper, and Peter Glick, special issue, Journal of Social Issues 74, no. 3 (September 13, 2018): 442–448.
- Kenneth Matos, Olivia O’Neill, and Xue Lei, “Toxic Leadership and the Masculinity Contest Culture: How ‘Win or Die’ Cultures Breed Abusive Leadership,” in Berdahl et al., “Work as a Masculinity Contest.”
- Leire Gartzia, “The Gendered Nature Of (Male) Leadership: Expressive Identity Salience and Cooperation,” Academy of Management Meetings Proceedings 2011, no.1 (January 2011): 1–6.
- Lynn Gencianeo Chin, “Unequal egalitarianism: Does organizational structure create different perceptions of male versus female leadership abilities?,” Gender in Management 31, no. 1 (March 2016).
- Rick Dove, “Overcoming the Male Leadership Culture,” Insight22, no. 3 (November 12, 2019): 34–38.