As 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.