Action Research on the Masculinity Contest

Sauder School of Business
Mascot, Wally the Bull

Since asking whether Arvind Gupta lost the masculinity contest at UBC, many have weighed in to consider whether such a contest occurred in Gupta’s case. No one has rejected the idea that such contests occur in leadership, however, and much of the fallout from this post has revealed how they do at UBC.

In my post I gave general examples of masculinity contests and organizational cultures that support them, and I vaguely referred to “UBC leadership,” in order to avoid airing specific dirty laundry I’d witnessed in my first year at UBC. But others, some unwittingly, have rushed to provide examples and identify leadership. From a personal standpoint this has sometimes been troubling; from a research standpoint it has been fascinating. My post and its fallout have amounted to a form of action research, shedding light on how the masculinity contest plays out in others’ minds. Like a Rorschach test, reactions to the post were more diagnostic of its interpreters and their experiences than of the post itself.

I now know that some people saw themselves, and their colleagues, in my post, even if I did not have them in mind when I wrote it. For my colleague James Tansey, the post conjured the image of “tall, athletic white men bullying Dr. Gupta,” which my post did not describe. Tansey wrote, “the part of this story that really bothers me and has received the least attention is that, in her blog, Dr. Berdahl refers to the departing president as a ‘brown man’ who ‘isn’t tall or physically imposing’,” revealing that he considers being brown or short, and mentioning these characteristics, to be insulting. For UBC math professor Nassif Ghoussoub, the post summoned the image of trophy kills, from the head of a lion to university presidents. Others have written or spoken to me directly about masculinity contests in their places of work, and both “losers” and “winners” of these contests acknowledge their existence and the advantage they give to “masculinity” over merit.

The masculinity contest analysis of why so few women and minorities make it to positions of leadership has struck a deep and polarizing nerve, suggesting an uncomfortable but seldom spoken truth about the path to leadership in universities and beyond. Some seem unable to interpret this analysis as anything than blaming the so-called “winners” of the contest – primarily white men – for the lack of gender and diversity in organizations. They would miss the point that it is the contest itself that is the problem, and the harm that it does to everyone and the organizations in which these contests take place, including to those who find themselves masking up and competing to “win.” For those interested in scholarly work on this topic, please see some of the publications by members of the research group below.

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Further Reading

Berdahl, J. L. (2007). Harassment based on sex: Protecting social status in the context of gender hierarchy. Academy of Management Review, 32 (2), 641-658.

Berdahl, J. L. & Moon, S. (2013). Workplace mistreatment of middle class workers based on sex, parenthood, and caregiving. Journal of Social Issues, 69, 341-366.

Kimmel, M. S. (2013). Angry white men: American masculinity at the end of an era. Nation Books.

Reid, E. (2015). Embracing, passing, revealing, and the ideal worker image: How people navigate expected and experienced professional identities. Organization Science, 997-1017.

Schmader, T., Hall, W., & Croft, A. (in press). Stereotype threat in intergroup relations. In J. Simpson & J. Dovidio (Eds.) APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology. Washington, D.C., APA.

7 thoughts on “Action Research on the Masculinity Contest

  1. It is interesting that individuals who fit the description of dominating man (bully) don't understand the question you pose and why it is such an important topic, while many women, minorities and others who have more experience as the bullied not the bully get it right away. Proves your point!

  2. There is a part of me that highly doubts you would have received a phone call in the first place if you were not being tested a female faculty. More commonly put: a dude would not have done that to another dude.

  3. Interesting you'd chose to shift your position from your original post, which you made clear had no inside information to now argue it is 'action research'. It is clear from my opinion piece that I am not arguing that labelling Dr. Gupta as a 'brown man' who 'isn’t tall or physically imposing' is insulting in and of itself, so I would appreciate it if don't try to label me as a racist. My experience is that he is a bright, energetic and bold leader and its patronising to argue he was departed because he lost a masculinity contest.

    To provide some actual evidence to support this, your colleague and long term friend of Dr. Gupta's, Nassif Ghoussob was quoted in an article by Richard Littlemore in BC Business last year: 'Arvind is a man of vision—and this is not some poetic thing. He is visionary and pragmatic. He is a mathematician in the true sense of the word. He sees details and patterns…. He sees where things can go wrong. No one will run circles around Arvind.'

    So maybe he left for other reasons?

  4. There has been no "shift" from my original post. Like everyone else (outside of Dr. Gupta and a few others), I did not know all the ins and outs of Dr. Gupta's departure, but I did have my own direct observations and experiences over my first year at UBC and working with him. I provided examples of what I liked about him as a leader. I also observed Dr. Gupta interact with other UBC leaders with styles and and values than differed from his. I observed disrespectful comments and behavior toward Dr. Gupta too early in his term (e.g. last fall) to be explained by "performance" issues. I stated that I believed Dr. Gupta's departure was due, at least in part, to losing the "masculinity contest" that seemwd to be playing out among the leaders at UBC: in short, a power struggle not based on merit. Reactions to my post shed more light on that.

    Thank you for your interest in what I have to say. I arrived at Sauder a year ago but the first indication of interest from you in my work was in your Globe and Mail piece criticizing what I said and my right to say it. I hope that from here on out we can converse face to face as colleagues at Sauder together.

  5. loool so funny to see James focus on the "Gupta" part of "did Gupta lose the masculinity contest?" when Jennifer's focus was on the "masculinity contest" part of "did Gupta lose the masculinity contest?".

    James, like the vast majority of North American academics working in bschools, shows the inclination towards methodological individualism. The agency of the individual will trump all! Including situations where the rules are stacked against them. Like, bro, you're clearly not getting it. The world's rules are made to cater to people like you (rich white educated dudes) so maybe, just maaaaybe, that's why you and your bschool homies are so keen on preserving agency ("don't patronise man. we got this!"), cuz you guys are the only people to ever have had full agency under the historic and current politico-economic order. Like the move makes sense for you, but maybe you could also understand that for the rest of us there isn't much agency to preserve in the first place until we root out the rigged rules that are constraining them.

  6. Reading the information first hand presents a different portrait of the issues than the distorted non-contextual second hand reports. This blog is both interesting and important and more posts and commentary would be in the interests of both UBC and the broader readership.

  7. You are 100% correct. There were many who rebelled against Gupta from day one although a grand 'show' was done during his induction ceremony. This is how these guys operate. They shake hand with one hand and stab you in the back with the other hand! Some of them worked overtime to kill Gupta during the search.

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