What is Masculinity?

A Personal Story.

Since Spring 2010 , when I accepted an intensive training mission with Capgemini Consulting, involving weekly business travels to Paris and abroad, I have been questioning Masculinity and Femininity.

My husband has been most of the time in charge of the groceries shopping, cooking, serving, nurturing with love and attention, supervising homeworks and finding the missing sock too! He has been there to kiss the children goodnight and congratulate them on their achievements too. He has been there to listen , comfort  and  receive hugs & tears on his manly Gap shirt. There were times when I was away too long and it was tough. He felt I was too focused on my career and not paying enough attention to him and the children. “Le monde à l’envers! “The world upside down!  We argued and discussed. We eventually found a way to manage and take shifts, so that he could also travel for work, “rest” and rely on me!

Do I feel lucky? Yes, of course I do. But most of the time, I have also felt guilty. Even writing this, a little voice inside my head is saying ” You are their mom. You and only you SHOULD be doing this. Or at least, a nanny or an au Pair.”

It reminds me that the first Au Pair I hired was a 20 year old Canadian Male. That was when I was 27, living in Aix-en-Provence and  chose him because he was so good with playing with the children, especially my 2 year old son. He was cool, positive and playful and my ex-husband was away most of the time while I was studying. It seemed a very natural balance.

Back to now, twenty years later. My partner is 100% supportive. He enjoys cooking and does it with art and heart. He is also passionate about sciences and loves sharing and teaching. He works full time as a Deputy Director in the biotechnology industry. He’s patient and kind and knows when to use humour to get the teenagers’ attention.

Does it make him less “manly”? No, it is much the opposite, as far as I am concerned. He’s very clear on what he can bring to our home, when I’m not there, what needs to be done and what he wants to handle. It makes him all the more attractive .He is caring for what we care above all, our family. That makes him brave, strong, powerful and sexy!

Then, why do I also feel guilty?

Deep inside of me, thousand of years of Patriarchy engraved the belief that a woman’s role is to feed her children and take care of her home, her nest, while her man hunts in the wild. I’ve been looking at representations of masculinity and femininity. I’m not the only one to be “propagandized” by this stereotype.

In her Huffington Post article, Marcia Reynolds questions Femininity.

“Does accepting my femininity mean I like wearing nice shoes and getting my nails done? I do like this. Does it mean I like to nurture others? To be honnest, I don’t…I like to challenge people more than to nurture them.”

When a man nurtures his children, does it make him feminine?

Marcia Reynolds defines femininity as

a mindset that anyone, including men, can cultivate and cherish. The ability to value and include everyone who desires to contribute to a common goal.”

If so, a man  is masculine when he includes his feminine side. He is human. He is a man expressing his full humanity.

Then, What is Masculinity?

Harvard Business School Professor Robin Ely has written a remarquable working paper, “Unmasking Manly Men: The Organizational Reconstruction of Male Identity”. She states,

” We define masculine identity as the sense a man makes of himself as a man, which develops in the course of his interactions with others. Such interactions are shaped by culturally available ideologies about what it means to be a man. Hence, men’s masculine identity (like women’s feminine identity) is a profoundly social and cultural phenomenon.”

Her conclusions are inspiring, both for women and men in the workplace.

“The reconstruction of masculine identity involves a transformation of the process of identity construction from one anchored in efforts to prove something about oneself to one anchored in the real demands of their work. Questions about which traits are better – masculine or feminine-  become moot when identity construction processes are no longer defensive.”

When individuals grow strong in self-confidence and self-esteem, then they can accept the inclusion of both masculine and feminine traits in working to achieve a mission. They no longer need to prove themselves along gender lines.

This research has implications about the relative merits of “masculine” versus “feminine” traits.

“Leadership scholars have begun to question heroic models of leadership, favoring a more relational approach often associated with femininity. Our findings suggest that such debates may focus on the wrong question because how people enact their gender identities- defensively versus generatively-may be more consequential than what traits they display.”

What if they were not really such a thing as “masculine” and “feminine”?

In Big Think, Gloria Steinem says that ” There isn’t really such a thing as a “masculine” and a “feminine”.


“The differences between two women are quite likely to be bigger than the generalized differences between males and females as groups for every purpose except reproduction, just as the individual differences between two members of the same race or etnicity are probably greater than the differences between two races.”

What needs to be done if we want to move beyond gender stereotypes?

  • Let go of guilt
  • Build a strong confidence in ourselves and trust in the others
  • Let go of defensiveness
  • Foster cooperation
  • Accept to share our power outside AND inside our home too
  • Accept to share the rewards and the love too, not only the chores!
  • Enjoy the process of self-discovery with curiosity and enthusiasm
  • Cherish and celebrate the new parts of each-other’s self in the discovery

What if men could do what women do at home?

What Gloria Steinem tells us is to reassess our assumptions about men. Women have been into men’s territory and have proven they could do a man’s job. There is definitely a lot to be done so that they have equal rights, equal payments, equal responsabilities. Still, “women rising in power in the world” is now acknowledged to be contributing to world health, education, environment  and economy.

Do you want some more facts and figures? Just read in the excellent 20-first Building Gender Balanced Business by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox:

What are we waiting to give men a vital and powerful place at home as well, as a caretaker, as an educator, as a nurturer, as a link builder?

“We have not demonstrated that men can do what women do. Therefore children are still mostly raised by women, and women in industrialized countries end up having two jobs: one outside the home and one inside the home. And more seriously than that, children grow up believing that only women can be loving and nurturing, which is a libel on men, and that only men can be powerful in the world outside the home, which is a libel on women.”


I kept the Big Think provocative tittle for the end and I love it.

We need to eroticize equality.

Let go of dominance/submission patterns and welcome the excitement of cooperation with joy and freedom!

Your turn!

What are YOU doing to allow men in your life to be more loving and nurturing at home? How do you foster cooperation within your couple? What works? What’s more difficult? How do you cope with guilt? How do you cope with tough choices and their consequences?

How do you “eroticize” equality?

29 thoughts

  1. ‘Let go of guilt
    Build a strong confidence in ourselves and trust in the others
    Let go of defensiveness’

    These really struck a cord with me. My partner and I both have demanding roles outside the house. He has no problem sharing the tasks. So why oh why do I feel uncomfortable and feel it is as a criticism if he picks up a duster? Don’t know and it is certainly not a rational response. He has no problem with me putting on a business suit and picking up a brief case! Guess I’m still learning about true partnership!

    1. Thank you so much Wendy for writing this first comment.
      It’s always scary to put out in the open feelings of guilt and not being adequate.
      It’s irrational and even in the best partnerships, we find some awkward feelings.
      Knowing that you too can relate to what I describe is telling me that I’m not imagining things. These feelings exist, they are attached to ancient archetypes.
      Still, it’s good to acknowledge them . Thank you Wendy.

    1. Thank you Anne for challenging me on that subject by creating together the Now Leadership.
      I can’t wait to explore further the New Territory of Beyond Feminine/Masculine borders…
      (PS: In order to “rendre à César ce qui appartient à César”, the catchy phrase belongs to Gloria Steinem, in Big Think.)

    1. Thank you Margarita (yes, I’ve been visiting your great blog and looked up your “About the Founder” page, very inspiring), your post resonates with mine indeed.
      I like the idea of femine or masculine “energy”, although I’m not sure I would define it the same way as you do.
      You seem to match masculine with serious and hard driven work and feminine with playful and light. It can be. Not always.
      “My” masculine energy can be very playful too, fun and childlike…Like the God Dyonisos for instance! I guess it’s about a very personal interpretation of these archetypes!
      “My” feminine energy can sometimes be laser like and determined, like the Athena Goddess.
      I love to play with these archetypes. That’s why in my coaching, even with executives, I use “figurines” (plastoy characters of fairy tales, heroes, monsters, princes, witches, etc..) It releases all kind of energies, taboos and inhibitions and provides clear answers to complex questions.
      I very much like the way you are able to aknowledge the two different kinds of energy and learn to adjust and find a new balance.
      Happy to be connected with you in Saint Petersbourg and to have found a new colleague!

      1. Thank you, Marion, for taking a look at my post. When I was contrasting masculine vs. feminine energy I was referring less to serious vs. playful, but more to “drive to achieve” vs. “already being in achievement”. I feel that when we get lost in the “drive to achieve” as determined by the world around us, we lose the feeling of already “being in achievement” (and “being in achievement” doesn’t mean that we cannot achieve more). It’s less about the “how” of that achievement (because like you said we, women, can be laser-like and determined as well as child-like and playful — just as men can be both) — but more about recognizing it.

        I don’t have any numbers of course, but coming purely from the experience of coaching men and women, I hear a lot more guilt around achievement from women than from men. And when I hear that guilt, I also hear that this guilt comes from looking at achievement from “masculine” energy perspective rather than “feminine”.

        I think that if both women and men have a healthy balance of both energies, the world would be a better place. 🙂 I hope this makes sense…

        Good to get to know you too!

  2. Feel u are overanalysing male/female role stereotypes; I came from defined male role family with father forbidding boys to assist in kitchen but have had no difficulty sharing roles with wife and 2 daughters over 30yrs; now in limited role as architect from home (due to recession) with wife working full time and have no problem cleaning house, ironing etc; I believe that it is more a question of degree of openness to ‘role’ sharing between partners than any female/male division of labour. TY for sharing though but feel you should ‘lighten up’ and share all roles together as need requires rather than use ‘guilt’ as a supposed cross to bear!

  3. Point is ‘guilt’ can easily become a self absorbed private emotion which can mask an underlying real concern about the justification in being absent from a young child’s life; as such in can be felt by either men or women; traditional ‘role’ may make a woman’s absence appear more guilt ridden but in reality the absence of either parent for long periods is not beneficial to any child, any any creche is a poor substitute. Truly a love or even a ‘chore’ shared is better than a polemic posted! This comment is not meant to offend but to offer a simple thought for consideration in the dilemna which faces most ‘modern’ patents! Ty once again for sharing and tweeting!

    1. Thank you for adding this new comment Colm.
      I agree with you that, eventually, it is more a question of degree of openness to ‘role’ sharing between partners than any female/male division of labour.
      Still, my experience is that in reality, even if men have become as cooperative as you are, women can’t help feeling guilty or at least quite controlling in the way they share tasks & responsabilities at home.
      I’m looking around , among all my friends who , as a couple, both work and have children, the pattern is very similar. Either they manage to have some flexibility at work, and in 90% cases, it’s the woman who is flexible, or they both struggle and try to do it all.
      In the second case, two possibilities: they can afford some help, then they delegate. Who’s hiring, managing, organizing the delegation? The Mom.
      Second possibility, they split the tasks, but who will supervise and anticipate (eventually Lead), usually the Mom. The guilt is not only “perceived” but felt deeply and it can be hurtful for the child too.
      I could go on and on but I don’t want to “over-analyse” 🙂
      I also agree with you that from the child’s perspective, none of the parents absence is beneficial.
      We need to re-invent work , taking into account women and men and also our children, next generation of women and men!

  4. Am looking at exactly this question with my own research – which focuses on which of the human traits drives a sustainability change agent (within a corporation). In order to figure this out and be able to talk about it/learn from it, traits need to be de-gendered (eg. nurturance should not be considered a female-only trait). Michael Kimmel has written a GREAT book about this topic and I highly recommend it: The Gendered Society.

    Thanks for this very thorough, insightful post.

    1. This is exactly why I am writing on this blog: to stimulate sparks of discussion and debates and to open new doors of learning.
      I also went to muse on your site, learnedon.com and you really deserve your beautiful name!
      I will look into The Gendered Society (already bookmarked an article for my next TGV travel in a couple of minutes…)
      I’m about to leave for a two days road trip, and this discussion helps me keep on track and lighten up.
      Thank you.

      1. I do appreciate my last name, and am so thankful it came naturally (thanks Dad). I’d love to hear/read your thoughts once you’ve read The Gendered Society. One thing that should help the broader gender conversation is making sure we don’t just see “gender studies” as about women.. and that we read both the smart women and men who write about their research or perspectives. Kimmel is a key representative of such wisdom in my mind.

      2. I will make sure I read The Gendered Society, Andrea. I agree with you on the necessity of including both Men and Women in the re-creation of new archetypes for 21st century. It’s all what NOW Leadership is about!

  5. Hi Marion – thoughtful post – have been mulling over it all day!

    We’re living in interesting time. I actually believe that the changing nature of the traditional family unit and role allocation within relationships, is going to have a huge impact on workplace practises in the next decade. There are clearly shifts going on, just as the one you are experiencing in your own household.

    The family has always been an economic unit and it is only very recently ( in the overall anthropological scheme of things) that children stayed in full time education until early adulthood, requiring increased parental involvement. They too were out working. In many parts of the world this is sadly still a fact of life.

    I think what will be more significant than changes within the nuclear family, is the increase in single parent families – in the UK 25% dependent kids are in a single parent households with similarly high precentages in the US . Mothers and fathers then have to assume all the qualities, attributes and roles which have traditionally been ascribed as stereotypically male and female.

    For many, this will open up all sorts of possibilities for growth – for some it may not – but we will see some interesting changes I’m sure.

    1. As always, I read your comments and posts with appetite and curiosity, Dorothy, as they open new doors and provide very uptodate information.
      Thank you for reminding us 2 trends:
      1) Children are staying in full time education until early (and sometimes later!) adulthood. It can become really challenging for both parents.
      I can only encourage every one of you who reads this to stop at Dorothy’s post
      “Boomerang Kids: The New Executive Stress”

      2) The huge increase in single parent families.
      The necessity for one parent to embrace both roles, the mom and the dad, to be both nurturing, caring and also seeting rules and limits.
      I would also add a third perspective: a poll has found that ” One in six young children from single-parent families spend fewer than two hours a week with a father, grandfather or male role model”.
      An article from The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/jan/19/children-earlyyearseducation suggests that we need more men to work in nursery schools and take care of the children under 5 especially.

      “Almost two-thirds of the single mothers considered it important for their children to have regular contact with male role models. A third believed boys related better to men than to women.

      The CWDC, which tries to ensure nursery workers have adequate training, wants more men to work in nursery schools.

      Thom Crabbe, its national development manager for early years, said: “It is important that during the crucial first five years of a child’s life they have quality contact with both male and female role models. Working with under-fives is definitely a job for the boys.”

      This is good material for another post, just like your comment here triggered an excellent post on your blog Dorothy :
      “Super Woman, an Outdated Concept ”
      Again, thank you for opening up the debate, Dorothy!

      1. Marion – thanks for a great and detailed reply. Dynamics are changing and demands will come from both women and men re-negotiating their roles both at home and the workplace to have greater work / life balance and hopefully feel more complete .

        I agree that all children are hard wired to need and should have the attention of both parents. The Gen Y women contacts that I do know, do not want to be Superwomen… such a great progression. I actually don’t think maternity leave will ever be abolished – women have to give birth to their babies and deserve that time. However, the introduction and acceptance of paternity leave combined with a cultural shift for men to have flexible working to accommodate family demands, will be a huge step forward. As the increase in divorce rates creates a slew of single fathers, then there should be a natural shift in this direction. I have noticed how this trend is already impacting executive searches – it is only a question of time before it becomes a workplace issue.

        Thanks for opening such a lively debate.

  6. My husband works with special needs kids (high school age) and spends a good part of his day changing diapers. At home, he is also very caring, considerate, goes grocery shopping, washes dishes, cleans the house, etc. I, for example, enjoy repairing things – we probably act very ‘modern’. But I think we get our energy from different sources.
    I feel energized when I nurture and create, he seems to be more energized when he makes others feel ‘safe’ (for example, some of the older kids are ashamed when they have to be bathroomed, but usually feel safe/at ease when my husband does it).
    A while back I read ‘The Moral Animal’, crazy/fun book, and have wondered, am I attracted to my husband because having him around will increase the chances that my offspring is protected and can prosper? Strange.
    And yes/yet, dominance/submission patterns suck!

    1. Great to connect with you, Anna. I’m grateful that you stopped by and commented on this post. Your experience is inspiring, thank you for sharing it with us.
      I like the way you describe the way you get your energy and I will certainly check “The Moral Animal”, especially if it’s a crazy and fun book!!!
      Your and your husband are reinventing new models, you are “eroticizing” equality!

  7. Yup, totally agree with need for redefinitions and degenderising behavioural traits. But i would still argue that men and women are different (not necessarily innately so) and that these differences are complementary and should be celebrated and valued, not ignored or banished.

    And i always say that women will only be leaders (in significant numbers) when men are enabled to be fathers… We’re starting to see them want this at home, but the work world is not giving them permission. Ban maternity leave and replace it by parental leave. Sweden started, germany (of all places) introduced it last year and i just got.back from Chile where the Minister for Women is pushing it…

    1. So good to discover your comment this morning, Avivah! You are a real inspiration for me with your mission to build 21st century gender “bilingual” organisations.
      Yes, “women will be leaders when men are enabled to be fathers.”
      Yes, diffferences between men and women should be celebrated and valued, as well as differences between national cultures, as long as we overcome stereotyping. The “do’s and don’t ” found in certain cross-cultural management programmes are a poor way of understanding cultures.It’s very similar with gender studies, as was stressed by Andrea Learned, we need to avoid gender stereotyping as well.
      The metaphor of bilinguism is a very powerful one regarding genders.
      We need interpretors and facilitators to bridge the gender gap in organisations.
      I am ready to be part of the Cruisade!

  8. Marion, another thought-provoking post. My husband cleaned house and cooked before it became semi-“acceptable” for a man to do those things. He was severely criticized and teased by other male family members, who probably feared that their wives would expect the same from them. He often joked that he was going to get pregnant and stay home with the kids while I worked. As it turned out, we never had children, but I continued to be the one who traveled on business and climbed the corporate ladder while he kept things in order at home. In our 34 years of marriage, we have almost never followed “traditional” male/female roles. Although it’s been difficult to sort out at times, we found a way to collaborate with each other and make it work (despite much of the rest of the world not understanding).

    1. Thank you Mary for sharing this personal story with us here.
      As you stress it, daring to move from “traditional” male/female roles attracts criticisms, “teasing” and even sarcasms. It also triggers fears and , secretly, envy.
      It takes courage to overcome these obstacles and a great deal of self-confidence and determination to keep on behaving according to your values.
      Well done for both of you, you are pioneers!

  9. I faced a similar challenge when my children were small and my work suddenly prospered, leaving me to do back-to-back workshops away from home. I had been travelling with the children, taking a nanny wherever I went, with them joyously playing on hotel grounds while I was working. But now, the eldest was in school and we did not feel it was appropriate to interrupt his flow so much. So they stayed home with Dad. On one particular day when I was very upset, I called home and told Rubén how I missed them and that I should be there and that this was all wrong! He listened patiently, lovingly as he does. Then, quietly, reminded me: I have been missing them when they travelled with you, too. Give yourself to your work. They are well cared for and it’s just your turn to miss them! My Mexican husband, raised in the land of the macho was so much more balanced in his view than I was being. It was a simple lesson and an enduring one. Beyond roles and responsibilities, I love the way my children grew up, seeing us both take on whatever parenting required of us. I only hope they find that balance for themselves when they are faced with the distinction between the masculine and the femenine. As the mother of three young men, I cross my fingers and wait to see 😉

    1. What a lovely and inspiring comment, Monica. Thank YOU!
      I can just picture you in this hotel, having this telephone conversation with your husband and I relate so much to what you express.
      Here I am, in a big empty conference room at a Novotel, waiting for my workshop to start, coming back from a 2 day leadership training in Paris, having hardly had the time to kiss my children goodbye in their bed early this morning and wishing I could ALSO clone myself AND be there when they come back from school. It’s about choices, every day. It’s about flexibilty and taking turns. It’s about sharing also your role as a carer of your home & family and accepting the reality that they can work it out perfectly fine WITHOUT you too!
      Sometimes the guilt comes by the believe you are all mighty and they could not survive without you.
      It’s not true. Not only they do survive, but they also benefit from other aspects of having their father close to them. When I came back home yesterday evening from Paris, my husband told me he had set the Scalextric (racing cars) in the living room and played with the twins (boy & girl!). He also cooked with our 15 year old boy while listening to his favorite Led Zeppelin records! (Strangely, my boy would NEVER accept to help me with the cooking before!)
      I smiled also at the mention of your “Mexican husband, raised in the land of Macho”!!!
      Definitely, your 3 boys will be raised in the land of Freedom & Love!

    1. Excellent! Yes, the workplace need to adjust to shifting workforce demographics,and drives with an increasingly diverse workforce transforming the organizations. Men and women’s lives are changing. We cannot keep on working with the same old rules. We need to create new ones and design organizations that fit the next Generation.

      I believe there’s plenty of room for creativity, innovation and empathy. It has just started!

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