Did President Arvind Gupta Lose the Masculinity Contest?

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 9.20.03 PMAs a conference of interdisciplinary scholars studying Work as a Masculinity Contest came to an end today, the resignation of Arvind Gupta as UBC’s president after a year in office was announced. I do not claim to know the ins and outs of this unfortunate outcome. UBC either failed in selecting, or in supporting, him as president. But what I do have are my personal observations and experiences after my first year here as the inaugural Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies: Gender and Diversity. I believe that part of this outcome is that Arvind Gupta lost the masculinity contest among the leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men.

President Gupta was the first brown man to be UBC president. He isn’t tall or physically imposing. He advocates for women and visible minorities in leadership – a stance that has been empirically demonstrated to hurt men at work. I had the pleasure of speaking with him on this topic to UBC alumni in Calgaryand Toronto, and it was clear that he is convinced of the need to bring and keep all forms of talent into the Canadian workplace, no matter its size, style, or packaging.

I also had the pleasure of serving on an executive search committee he chaired. In leading that committee he sought and listened to everyone’s opinions, from students through deans. He expressed uncertainty when he was uncertain and he sought expertise from experts. He encouraged the less powerful to speak first and the more powerful to speak last. He did not share his own leanings and thoughts until it was time to make a decision, so as not to encourage others to “fall in line.” In other words, he exhibited all the traits of a humble leader: one who listens to arguments and weighs their logic and information, instead of displaying and rewarding bravado as a proxy for competence.

When work is a masculinity contest, leadership does not earnestly seek expert input, express self-doubt, or empower low-status voices. Instead, those who rise to positions of leadership have won the contest of who can seem most certain and overrule or ignore divergent opinions. Risk-taking, harassment, and bullying are common. Against men this usually takes the form of “not man enough” harassment, with accusations of being a wimp, lacking a spine, and other attacks on their fortitude as “real men” (or leaders, which occurs for women as well). “Frat-boy” behavior sets the tone, like encouraging heavy drinking, bragging about financial, athletic, or other forms of prowess, and telling sexual jokes.

Like a lot of bias in organizations, much of this behavior is conducted without ill intention. Not all men engage in it, and some women do in order to fit in. But as research in social psychology and organizational behavior reveals, it does not lead to excellence in decision-making or performance. President Arvind Gupta was about excellence. I wish him the best in finding it in his next endeavors.

39 thoughts on “Did President Arvind Gupta Lose the Masculinity Contest?

  1. The part of frat boy and real men stuff is a bit of a head scratcher…. Don't get me wrong….it certainly exists (although ironically, in fields like Investment management and finance I would argue there are more female leaders emerging than male). But in the academia? Are you saying that the real alpha male types end up in the academia? Those guys don't last 20 seconds in the type of environment you discuss. Now perhaps there's a 'junior' version of schoolyard dynamics in the academia…..but male academics preaching forms of physical and financial prowess? It's sounds like a bit from a Simpsons episode..!

  2. I've seen plenty of it in English Departments at R1 institutions. It's endemic, I think. We used to talk, at grad school, about the "beta to alpha male transition" – that is, a shift in the way our male colleagues behave when they discover that their academic abilities, rather than financial resources or physical prowess, could bring them power, prestige and the sexual interest of young women. It's strange to sit around with a bunch of poetry professors who are drinking to excess while discussing strip clubs and which colleagues/students have a "cherry" they want to pop, or would give good blow job, and are 'gay-boys' or whatever. But – been there, done that. More than once.

  3. Gahhhh….
    Good grief. As Grad student at UBC who has ended up teaching a couple courses… Gahhhh… You don't sleeze on students! You don't sleeze on students you don't sleeze on students. It's creepy! You're responsible for them- you…
    I'm sorry, you guys are trying to have a serious conversation about the issues in our institution, and I'm busy sitting here melting into a puddle in horror.
    It's our job to make this environment a safe and engaging environment for students. How the hell are we going to achieve any of that with drunken proffessors taking this attitude?

    … which is getting entirely distracted from the issue of university leadership, but happens to be the point that gets to me the most.

    …. Gaarhh. creepy creepy creepy.

  4. Not wrong to be appalled in this context: it is a leadership issue, because plays out in the leadership (of many organizations, not just universities) in subtle but exhausting ways – many of them described admirably by my former colleague Prof Berdahl and other researchers on the topic. Here's to transparency, honesty, open discussion – and then: change.

  5. I'd made up my mind that I was in full support of your academic freedom in this matter before I clicked through and read this post. I had expected to find something MUCH more incendiary. I am amazed that this measured and explicitly speculative post should have caused the reactions I've been reading about today.

  6. Gupta was also president of the 'other' UBC, in Kelowna. The former Dean of the Faculty of Critical and Creative Studies, Wisdom Tettey, is also not white. He is now (sadly for us) Dean of the Barber School of Arts and Sciences.

  7. Interesting observations. We need more people like you speaking out agaisnt this ridiculous culture of inequality that flows through everything. Saddens me that even UBC has not risen above it.

  8. You are writing as an outside observer and by your own admission, you don't know the ins and outs of this case. In other words, since you don't have any actual data, this is just your opinion. While I don't think anyone can oblige you to take down the post I don't think you should hide behind the veil of academic freedom when you don't actually have any real evidence to support you position.

    More importantly, I find it offensive that you chose to describe Dr. Gupta as a 'small brown man'. As I am sure he would. Based on my experience, I would describe him as a bright, energetic, confident and accomplished entrepreneur and I find it very hard to imagine he would be brow beaten by the white males at UBC or anyone else.

  9. White male here. Anecdotal evidence but in my experience most white, heterosexual males are deeply afraid of being branded by their peers as "feminine", "gay" or any other label that implies they are emasculated wimps. When group dynamics, such as in a workplace, take hold even men who consider themselves progressive or egalitarian will often cave to pressure from dominant males in the group and either try to join them or supplicate to the alpha group and keep his head down and make himself as small a target as possible. A dominant male with egalitarian values who challenges the alpha group can sometimes earn grudging respect from them if he can rally others in the office/work site around him and still face the alphas "man to man".

    Can this type of behavior be socially engineered away? I have my doubts. Humans are primates and our status struggles in the competition for mates are very similar to those exhibited by the so-called lower primates. I dislike the term "hard-wired" because society absolutely influences gender roles, but some behaviors seem very deeply ingrained and can be found in almost every culture. One behavior I'd argue all males have noticed is that females tend to be sexually attracted to dominant males regardless of how feminist or progressive they claim to be. And males are universally attracted to young, healthy, i.e. "hot", females regardless of any feminist or egalitarian principles they may have. These dynamics inevitably come into play in any mixed-sex group setting.

    Evolution through natural selection is often wheeled out as the definitive argument to explain why males and females are the way they are but humans also make choices and have preferences that do not favor evolution so this isn't quite the debate stopper its proponents claim. And I think evolution is widely misunderstood, but that's another post for another day.

    It's clear we have a long way to go before the "gender war" is resolved and maybe it will never come to that. Only time (perhaps a long long time) will tell. Regardless, it _is_ possible to hold one's own as a male in our society without adopting or mimicking trite and boring hetero male stereotypes, e.g. sports talk, strip clubs, denigrating women and non-white people, "bro talk" and all that.

  10. Proud that you have the courage to write this! It sets an amazing tone of resistance and fearlessness within an academic culture that sadly is still chock full of misogyny. It would be much easier to sit back and say nothing in this situation and be liked, but this sense of courage fills my heart. It's so wonderful to see that women in positions of power can write smart posts challenging the controlling dynamics within academic institutions which are counterintuitive from the progressive ideologies that are being taught within them. Bravo to you professor Berdahl!

    'First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win'

  11. I can assure you no shortage of macho behaviour/ assumption of male privilege in the sciences in academia either, though not a universal trait among the men and not an absent one among the women.

  12. Professors are not expected to have opinions and speculations? They are not to have freedom of speculation? As someone said before, this was a very balanced and measured speculative post. I don't see anything hurtful to anyone in this blog post but that is just my opinion. A simple "no" followed by "confidentiality blah blah blah…." from the administration would have been sufficient to counter – the matter would've died a natural death.

  13. just saw you in the news… Jennifer, you are the bully for using academic freedom as an excuse to attack John Montalbano. We need BOG like the one we have else we'll continue to hear from bullies like you who think highly of themselves and attack in the name of academic freedom. Can't you respect UBC policies, and a group of elected and appointed members of the board? What makes you and professors who take your side think that you are above governance for asking Mr. Montalbano to resign? You just stepped on people's freedom including mine! You don't speak for the entire UBC community. Academic freedom? lost the masculinity contest? give me a break! I'm a minority in UBC — a short Asian woman — and it's your blog and you coming out on the news that I find very offensive. You and faculty (who have tenure) obviously have no fear of speaking up in public in the name of academic freedom, but the rest of us, whose jobs are at stake if we exercise our freedom of speech, will try to remain anonymous. You see where the inequity is?

    I don't think Gupta's racial profile is an issue at all, but Gupta's incompetence obviously is. he caused 3 excellent VPs and excellent leaders to leave. Gupta may have sweet talked you, but this non-white male made drastic changes — significantly cut Admin funds resulting in significant job loss, stopped capital projects, plus more. All these were done in less than a year without any solid plans nor any clear communication of what he was trying to do.

  14. The above post from a "short Asian woman" is obviously PR designed to cover for John Montalbano. The guy needs to resign. No president should be out of office as quickly as Arvind was. He was not given the chance he clearly deserved.

  15. how is your job at stake if you exercise your freedom of speech? So you are just working for yourself (just to keep yourself fed) while your interest for UBC community is secondary. Obviously you do not have integrity and courage as what Jennifer demonstrated for the interest of UBC community. I wouldn't be surprised that you wouldn't have earned respect from UBC community including the students you taught based on your self-serving attitude.

  16. You missed my point. I have no issue with Dr. Berdahl expressing her opinion. I just don't think that the simple fact that its an opinion being stated by an academic makes it academic. That would require research and data. So its a matter of free speech, not some great intrusion on academic freedom. Plus the blog is still up, so where is the restriction?

    My bigger issue was with the description of Dr. Gupta, which I find offensive.

  17. I think the broader point about academic freedom is actually covered by the undue pressure placed on Professor Berdahl. So it is less the initial conversation than the subsequent meetings, as described by her "Academic Freedom" Post. It also says something about the culture of UBC that the admin thought it would work. Clearly, this is not unusual practice.

    What is more apparent is that the University Administration is incredibly stupid. Meaning no offence to Professor Berdahl, her blog entries usually get 1 or 0 comments–so clearly, this is not a well-read or trafficked blog. By blowing this out proportion, this university has made Professor Berdahl a cause célèbre, and provided her views with a national–perhaps international–platform. Foolish of them.

  18. The masculinity comment is liable or conjecture at the very least, how is that intellectual freedom? I know my employer wouldn't put up with too much name calling even if it was somewhat true.

  19. I think your conclusions are on shaky ground considering you don't produce any proof on this issue, though I'm sure your heart is in the right place. It's a bit odd that you are playing the race card for Mr. Gupta – could he not raise this issue himself? To me it sounds as if you're blaming his resignation on his excellent reputation, affirmative action stance, and being brown. The president of a university isn't meant to follow the faculty ideology of bravado and "masculinity" (as you put it). He is effectively a PR figurehead. Take a look at your fellow faculty members and then look at administration – which group is more exclusionary and "masculine", do you think?

    I'm still curious about the muzzling treatment you received. University culture has a terrible reputation of keeping these hot issues internalized as much as possible since they are largely run as a business these days. Your case is nothing new, unfortunately. However, I'm curious if the treatment your received is borne out of concern for the reputation of the university or if you "hit the nail on the head"? I'm sure you can't comment any further, although without much more substance I'm not sure I can get on-board with your opinion.

  20. As a white woman who spent nearly 40 years in the financial industry, I am all too familiar with what is being referred to as "the masculinity contest" — it is just one variation on the theme of an age old dynamic where the majority imposes its standards and style as being those to which all should aspire in order to be deemed acceptable, to be seen as 'team players", or persons of the "right fit." It is a scenario in which acceptance and success hinge not only on a willingness to submit to the criteria defined by the dominant majority, but also a willingness to actively compete for the top rank within parameters that the dominant majority has established, often through nothing more than a feverish embrace of the traits which they perceive as sharing with each other. It has been wrong throughout history and remains so today. For Pr. Berdahl to question whether President Gupta fell victim to such a dynamic is appropriate, at the core of her field of study, and well within her current academic mandate. Change is needed, and there is a long way to go before diversity within the ranks of academia, in the corporate realm, or in politics (to name a few), reaches a level at which there is no longer a need for such questioning. Our applause and admiration should be given to both those who question, i.e., academics, and those who provide the opportunity to do so, i.e., organizations and individuals such as UBC and Mr. Montalbano, respectively. The catch, however, is that Pr. Berdahl went beyond merely questioning whether Arvind Gupta's departure was attributable to a lost "masculinity contest"; despite her own admission that she was not privy to the " ins and outs of this unfortunate outcome", she stated her belief that it was so, simply because, well, that is just what typically happens to women and to men of color in organizations run by white men. Hmmm – having lived it, I don't disagree that it happens far too often, however, given the efforts of UBC and of Mr. Montalbano to advance the cause of diversity, I am somewhat sympathetic to the fact that either, or both, might take umbrage at what effectively sounds like no more than the Professor's hunch. Is it impossible to imagine any other plausible reason for Mr. Gupta's departure or is the " masculinity contest" explanation so obvious as to warrant a declaration of belief on the part of Jennifer Berdahl ? The public does not know what all may have led to Pr. Gupta's departure, and neither does she, therefore, to allege an infringement of academic freedom simply because umbrage was taken at an caustic allegation that casts dispersion on a key principle/initiative that the University and Mr. Montalbano are trying to uphold and advance, seems excessive. So, question everything Pr. Berdahl, please continue to advance the cause of greater diversity and allow the world to develop and benefit from every source of talent that is has, but please don't publicly declare a belief based merely on what has typically happened in the past — much like predicting the stock market based on its history – it can be very risky and often damaging for all concerned.

  21. "significantly cut Admin funds" — sounds good to me. University administrations are getting extremely bloated at the expense of the people who actually carry out the university's missions of teaching and research. I understand that such staff may feel threatened by a reorganization, and want to maintain their ability to get academics to answer to them, but that's not a reason to not do it.

    Your assertion that universities need a BoG who muzzle academics indicates that you are entirely unsuited to a job at a university, and don't understand that a university BoG is composed of part-time trustees with significant outside interests. A job working for a private company, where everyone is required to fall into line with the dictates of a full-time CEO, sounds like it would suit you better.

  22. I also find the description of Dr. Gupta to be quite at odds with how he has come across to me in person and through his professional activities. He doesn't strike me as someone who would lose a contest of any kind, for one thing, other than simply not having the authority required. That he had in mind a rather different model of UBC and approach to running it than the board wanted, I can well believe, and a lesser man would probably have simply fallen into line with expectation rather than resign.

    The Boards of Governors of many Canadian universities have changed their role from general oversight to one of more control, wanting to reshape the role of universities to be more businesslike rather than education-oriented, and exploit the universities' resources (which were set aside for the university for the educational benefit of the people of the province, not high-paying external clients or the business interests and ego of the Board). These businesspeople are acting as though they are not trustees of a public institution, but CEOs of a business that they can dictate to. This looks like more of the same. So while I disagree with Dr. Berdahl's characterization of Dr. Gupta, trying to muzzle her is far worse.

  23. I am a graduate of the Sauder School and went on to be a partner and managing director at Goldman Sachs. I also previously served on the BOG of UBC. I now live in the states and this matter was called to my attention. What I know for sure is that John Montalbano is one of finest human beings I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. He is honest, kind, generous, and a true champion for diversity. I do not know the facts around the Presidents departure, but I do know the character of John Montalbano. He voluntarily serves in a leadership role, has given millions to the University, and does so because he believes in service. Perhaps there were mistakes made, but perhaps not. It seems to me there are sides to be taken as to what the truth is and I know what side I am on.

  24. This comment is coming very late, but I've been reading the press that has emerged after this post. Had my daughter not become a feminist scholar, I wouldn't understand, but I've seen the struggles she has had to face. People don't seem to trust her authority on such issues. I don't mean "authority" in the sense of authoritarianism, which ascribes arbitrary hierarchical power to an individual –the authority that President Gupta eschewed, according to your writing. No. I'm talking about the authority that is advised by years of painstaking research. It kills me to see the abject dismissal of feminist scholarship by people who have never researched it themselves. It is akin to the Church dismissing Galileo because the revelation that the earth is not the centre of the universe didn't fit its current worldview. Galileo didn't just make shit up; he studied what others didn't study. He saw what others hadn't seen. So too does my daughter. So too have you.

    Your post is not accusatory in any way. Is it not disappointing to the University that its president resigned? I know nothing of the ins and outs of the actual situation, yet it seems completely plausible to me that President Gupta does not fit the traditional image of an institutional leader, and that UBC does have a traditional (read: masculine) structure This observation impugns no one, and it didn't come out of the blue; it was advised by years of painstaking research and knowledge acquisition. So once presented with an observation like yours, it is incumbent on the institution to look at itself in the mirror. Doing so, it could potentially break new ground in modern leadership.

    Consider this: Rather than get bent about your speculative analysis, UBC could have asked you to offer your expertise to an examination of the hierarchical structure.

  25. It seems the truth about this matter is now coming out. I refer to the article in the G&M written by Francis Bula and Simona Chiose.

  26. I do not know the actual facts about the resignation of this professor. However, Dr. Berdahl raised the very questions of the burnning social issue in Canadian Society. In many instances, I have seen that the society is dominated by the majority and minority is neglected. For example, 99% of skilled immigrants who have superior qualifications compared to white Canadians do labor jobs at minimum wage

  27. Physical height and tint of skin are crucial independent variables in the outcome of academic disputes; more so than any of the political, financial, economic, or ideological factors usually mentioned. So Professor Berdahl. What is the evidence for this generalization ?

  28. The factors identified in the above blog speak to organizational cultures and leadership styles, which are, of course, affected by politics, finances, economics, and ideologies. The work I and others are doing examines how these factors influence social practices and norms in organizations that, often unwittingly, end up systematically marginalizing and disadvantaging women and minorities.

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