There were over 200 people attending the pre-bid meeting for work on the Air Force hospital. As I expected, at least four-fifths of them were men. Construction is still a male-dominated industry. The representatives from the Air Force who presented the bid opportunity were all men, except for the human resources officer who spoke briefly about equal opportunity regulations in the bidding process.
After the presentation, my boss and I circulated around the room to network with potential bidding partners. We knew a few folks from other projects, and it could have helped us get a contract if we were part of a team with a larger firm. As we met folks and had conversations about strategy, I was repeatedly addressed as if I were the owner of the company, and my boss were my assistant. Even though we had name tags which clearly identified me as project manager and my boss as CEO, I was consistently addressed as the lead because my boss was a woman.
Within the context of our environment, it does make some sense that people might not have read our name tags precisely and assumed that because I am a man, I was the boss. There are very few women owned and operated construction firms. But what disturbed me most was how some men would need to be reminded two or three times that she was really the boss! They often thought it was a joke, or she was a figure head for image purposes, and more than once – they simply ignored the correction and continued to address me as the boss.
I have worked for women in different jobs and these reactions from men have followed me, even outside the construction industry. Not only is there an assumption that I must be the boss, and she must be my assistant, but I also felt peers challenge my manhood. I’ve experienced everything from raised eyebrows to sexual innuendos and comments, and many men react to my subordinate position with visible discomfort. They seem to believe there must be something else going on. Being employed by a woman – even though there are many women in leadership positions across industries – gets reflected to me as either a sexual arrangement between us, or a lack of strength in me.
I used to feel shame and question myself – was a I less of a man because I took leadership from a woman? It was embarrassing for me to repeatedly redirect the conversation to my boss. Often, I would laugh or try to pass it off with inappropriate jokes. I was also embarrassed for my boss whose experience of this demeaning behavior went well beyond the couple of minutes I was party to.
If I’m being honest, my feelings were complex. On the one side, I wanted to somehow prove my manhood, and on the other, I felt ashamed that my physical presence was diminishing her voice.
My experience shows that despite equal rights by law, our nation continues to listen to the voices of men over women. When it comes to the institutions that control our resources, make policy decisions and validate knowledge, men are overwhelmingly in charge. Companies in the S&P 500 are led by 95% male CEOs. Despite record setting elections in 2018, the 116th House of Representatives remains 76% men. Seventy percent of U.S. university presidents are men.
If we men are not able to hear a woman’s voice at a business meeting, how will we be able to hear when she tells us she has experienced sexual assault? What about the voices of trans folks and non-binary people who are often invisible and unheard? By marginalizing groups of people we have been socialized to view as “less than,” we create an environment where they are perpetually at risk of discrimination, harassment and violence.
The Man Box teaches us that men are leaders – which implies that women must follow. We are taught to be in control and to make decisions. For a man to be following the lead of a woman means that “she wears the pants,” or that he must be “whipped.” There is an implicit assumption that her leadership is only possible because he is lacking some Man Box quality. I’ve wrestled with my own socialization and have committed to live a healthy manhood, one that allows me to exist outside the Man Box. I also try to use my privilege to elevate the voices of women leaders around me. It’s an ongoing process, but one that research shows leads to improved physical and emotional health, lower suicide rates and longer life spans for men.
Taking leadership from women, and trans and non-binary people, has been an uplifting and transformative experience for me. By rejecting those rigid notions of manhood, I have experienced validation and consideration of my whole self – strengths and weaknesses. My physical and emotional health have improved. I feel like I can be a better father, a better friend and a better member of my community.
I encourage other men to practice true followership and to use your privilege to center and lift the voices most often marginalized. I’m confident that the simple act of listening will bring new value and richness into your life and relationships.