In preparation for International Women’s Day, the March French edition of “Marie Claire” features a number of famous men wearing their day clothes, with one unusual detail: they are all wearing bright red stilettos, arguably the symbol of femininity. How did these men feel to be perched on such flashy high heels? Perhaps it connected them with their feminine side. How were these men perceived when posing in these shoes? Were they looked down upon, were they thought to be brave, or just silly?
Society is changing fast, and while the roles of men and women have successfully brought us to where we are today, I believe they are bound to evolve further. The other morning, I was getting on a plane, and overheard a conversation between two men in their early 30s; one of them mentioned that if he could not get his child into day-care, he would have to work part time. Are you surprised? Studies show that an increasing number of men are expecting different models of work. In the next 3 years, 50% of the working population will be from Generation Y (born after 1980), which means that organisations wanting to attract the best talent may need to shift their models and management practices.
Back in 1992, French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter wrote a booked called “XY, On Masculine identity”, an essay about the traditional perceptions of masculinity and femininity, investigating what it is to be a man in industrial and post-industrial societies. She suggests male identity is going through a crisis. She argues that masculinity is something men have to acquire (their chromosomes are X and Y), whereas femininity would be a given from birth. Badinter introduces what she suggests could be a new role model for men: the “reconciled man” who has moved successfully through the stages of denying his femininity in young age (boys don’t play with girls!) to a renewed recognition of his femininity and reconciliation of it with his masculine virility. She argues that today the more involved exercise of fatherhood is a natural platform to become the “reconciled man”.
I found it an interesting read. Especially as we look at it from the other side of the spectrum: masculinity in women. Several pieces of research have found that women who copy men’s behaviour are often perceived negatively (so-called “alpha women”), and considered aggressive or ineffective. Equally, attitudes that are traditionally labelled as feminine such as vulnerability, sensitivity, emotionality, are perceived as weaknesses, especially in the workplace. I recall an article that argued that women who were able to put their alpha woman hat on and take it off, depending on needs in a given moment, were more efficient, taking advantage of their feminine and masculine sides. So, how much do men use their feminine side? Is this acceptable in the workplace? How much do some men have to adapt to a dominant culture that sees traditionally feminine qualities as a weakness?
A study called “Metro Leaders -- A new breed of men in business?” by Praesta Partners, a UK firm of executive coaches, looked into 9 characteristics of a new type of male leader, such as authority based on credibility, or comfort with lack of omnipotence, or ease with having multiple roles, or their style, that manages staff as people, not employees. This sounds to me like we are moving away from stereotypes and towards a new more inclusive identity, more adapted to today’s needs; inclusive because it reveals our own internal diverse personality traits.
In today’s 21st century, perhaps we should drop preconceived ideas of ‘what is feminine and masculine’, and remember that femininity only exists because there is masculinity, as opposites need each other to exist. Men and women undeniably are both, in varied proportions, and such diversity is strength.
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Amélie de Marsily