‘Masculinity Contest Culture’ in Science Disadvantages Women


Feb 27, 2019


Image courtesy of Kathleen Brooks for The Washington Post

There is a pervasive and harmful ‘masculine contest culture’ in science, which forces women to adopt toxic, traditionally masculine workplace behaviors to fit in, according to a gender equity issue released by medical journal The Lancet. This model, in turn, renders women vulnerable to sexual harassment and psychological abuse in the workplace, while impeding the growth of their careers, the report concludes. 

Acting tough, displaying aggressive behavior, engaging in cut-throat competition and seeking to one-up each other by working longer hours are typically masculine behaviors that have been imbibed within the industries of law and medicine, according to “Work as a Masculinity Contest,” published in the Journal of Social Issues in 2018. An organization or industry can be diagnosed with ‘masculinity contest culture,’ or MCC, when “these behaviors are not just the isolated acts of a few individual men, but become the way work gets done, i.e., when masculine norms determine who gets rewarded, how colleagues should be treated, and attitudes about work/life balance,” according to the report. 

While MCC culture affects all participants badly — causing deterioration of mental and physical health, lowering levels of cooperation and increasing instances of abuse — it predominantly affects the lives and careers of women. They often have to prove that they have ‘what it takes’ to succeed, the standards of which have already been established by the men who came first, the report adds. If they refuse to conform, they face backlash, and often obstacles or a complete halt to their career. 

It’s never the women who were falling short; it’s the environment — is one thought Ahmedabad-based orthopedic physiologist Shivali Saraiya had to inculcate within herself during her training at Bombay Hospital and Research Centre from 1988 to 1993.  The world, the environment, is created by men; women are simply working in it, she said. The environment pushes you to extremes, subjects you to awkward schedules and pushy behaviors, she added. 

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Recalling her experience working in corporate hospitals for five years,  Saraiya said the competition, one-upmanship and jealousy pushed her buttons the most. “Suppose a woman is going through such an environment — where, in the name of culture, she is told that this is the way it is. After a span of four to five years, you actually become like that,” she said. 

After watching her female seniors also engage in aggressive and toxic behaviors, Saraiya decided to work for herself. “I told myself, I’ll earn a little less, but I’ll be fine working in my space, where I can create the kind of environment I want. I decided I didn’t want to be pushed into it in the name of work culture, in the name of professional environment, anymore,” she added, acknowledging that such a privilege isn’t afforded to most women. 

Qualitative research cited by The Lancet found that women often have to “pretend to enjoy sexualized banter in the operating room” to seem credible, and “demonstrate masculine traits to become a legitimate woman surgeon.” After experiencing the work culture in surgical fields of the UK and Australasia, a higher proportion of women, than men, chose to leave surgical training, according to The Lancet. 

This phenomenon can be explained by feminist theory, as cited by The Lancet: Institutions and fields created and traditionally dominated by men, like surgery, “are defined by the absence of embedded roles for women.” If women want to thrive in existing structures, a dichotomy will present itself: identify as a woman and exist outside the traditional institution of surgery, or identity as a surgeon and adopt traditionally masculine characteristics. 

“Women passing through medical institutions become heartless. Where are the feminine qualities, the sensitivities you must have?” asked Saraiya. 

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And if women decide to soldier on in the existing traditional model, their careers will suffer. For example, studies evaluating women’s success in academia have shown the presence of egregious biases over the course of two decades. The Lancet delineates: Women are perceived to lack the brilliance needed for discovery; they have to contribute more and work harder to receive the same credit as men on publications; they receive less compelling letters of recommendation; their work is cited less often and takes longer to publish; they are less likely to be introduced with their formal titles, they receive lower teaching evaluations for implementing the same methods, and the list goes on. 

A UNESCO report says that despite 53 percent of women accounting for the world’s bachelor’s and master’s degree graduates, and making up 43 percent of PhD graduates, a mere 28 percent become researchers; and only 30 percent move into STEM-related fields — which makes apparent the disillusionment women experience after being subjected to masculinized academic environments. 

It is imperative that initiatives to ameliorate women’s experiences in scientific fields “do not unduly focus on gender,” according to The Lancet. Even typical obstacles in the medical field, such as long working hours, unavailability of leave, and fatigue, disproportionately affect women, who often also bear the disproportionate burden of work at home. Therefore, it is not enough to instill measures targeting women’s assimilation into the industry. The industries themselves, with their meritocracies rewarding only masculinized standards of success, need to be reformed from the ground up. 


Written By Rajvi Desai

Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle’s Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news and politics in New York City, and dabbled in design and entertainment journalism. Back in the homeland, she’s interested in tackling beauty, sports, politics and human rights in her gender-focused writing, while also co-managing The Swaddle Team’s podcast, Respectfully Disagree.


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