Changing the conversation around masculinity

November 25, 2019 / Global

Shikha Donde and Troy Stevenson

In October 2019, Uber hosted journalist Liz Plank at our San Francisco HQ for a conversation moderated by Shikha Donde, Senior Counsel, and Troy Stevenson, Global Head of Community Operations. Here, Shikha and Troy revisit their conversation with Liz and reflect on key takeaways for embracing “mindful masculinity” and serving as allies to the men in our lives.

Shikha: Troy and I had the privilege of welcoming Liz Plank, award-winning journalist and Executive Producer of Vox Media’s Divided States of Women, for an exclusive conversation about her new book, For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity. In Mindful Masculinity, Liz offers a history of male allyship and steps we can take to redefine traditional gender roles and create a safer, more equitable society for all. I devoured this book over the course of two nights, so I couldn’t wait to learn more about Liz and her work.

Raised by progressive parents in Montreal, Canada, Liz was inspired to tackle gender equality from early on. 

“Empathy was underscored for me at a very young age,” Liz said. “When I went to university, I learned of Women’s Studies and first realized that this could be my job. I thought it was incredible.”

In the real world, however, she felt a disconnect between what she learned in her classes and what she observed and encountered in the real world. Fresh out of school, she started an online petition in 2011 to allow women’s boxing teams to wear shorts instead of skirts, the mandatory uniform. The petition quickly went viral, their uniform requirements were updated, and the rest is history.

“It was then that I realized I could use media to discuss and push for the change that I wanted to make in the world, as well as connect and collaborate with others who were also working towards this change,” Liz said.

Embracing mindful masculinity

Troy: In Mindful Masculinity, Liz suggests that the idealized vision of men emphasizing a tough exterior, lack of emotional vulnerability, and a willingness to take risks can problematically affect both genders. During our conversation, she cited research indicating a correlation between these expectations and men’s health. These studies suggest that women statistically live longer than men, are more likely to have close friendships, and are less likely to drown.

As a child of the 1970’s and 1980’s who grew up in Missouri, Liz’s statement resonated with me; living out this idealized masculinity permeated the world I was raised in. And now as a father of a teenage son and daughter, I worry about perpetuating this cycle.

To address this, Liz suggests that we reframe masculinity in a mindful and empathetic way that allows men to embrace a more nuanced vision of their gender.

“[During my research], I spoke with so many men who felt trapped by this idealized masculinity,” she said. “I realized that it’s not the men who are toxic, but the environment in which they are raised in that is toxic.”

Why don’t men use more exclamation points?

Shikha: While we’ve come a long way since Troy’s childhood experience in the 1970s and 1980s, these cultural expectations continue to exist. During the fireside chat, I told Liz a story about how my son, a five-year-old boy whose favorite color is pink and loves unicorns, was asked whether he was a boy or a girl by a peer in his Kindergarten class. The Mama Bear in me asked my son, “Did you tell him that boys can like pink and unicorns, and also play with cars?” He smiled at me and said, “No, Mama. I told him ‘Of course, I’m a boy.’” 

This experience inspired our next question for Liz: where is the line drawn between being too politically correct and accepting that boys will be boys?

According to Liz, even individuals from progressive communities need to check their microaggressions and speak up about these issues. Since the Women’s Movement at mid-century, women have had some latitude to engage in more masculine behavior and defy gendered expectations, such as being more assertive and confident in the workplace, whether that manifests as claiming a seat at the boardroom table or using fewer exclamation points in emails. Men, on the other hand, have not historically been given this privilege when the roles are reversed. 

“Why don’t men use more exclamation points?” Liz asked. “A few exclamation points never hurt anyone!” 

Referring to this phenomenon as an “unfinished gender revolution,” Liz advocates for giving men more latitude when it comes to the expression of their identities. 

“It’s tragic that we raise boys in this way, and that they have to constantly monitor themselves and scrutinize each other,” Liz said.

Going on a chivalry diet

Troy: In an effort to help the men in her life feel empowered to defy these masculine expectations, Liz went on a chivalry diet, through which she stopped accepting favors from men. 

“When I stopped accepting gifts, I had healthier relationships,” she said. “There was an almost erasure of that power dynamic that I didn’t even know existed in my relationships. I had been giving away some of my equality and equity in relationships.” 

Chivalry extends to the workplace, too, she said and offered some suggestions for how to tackle these gender norms and unspoken expectations in the office. 

“A lot of men will hold an elevator door open, but won’t book conference rooms or take notes,” Liz said. “I don’t know about you, but I would far greater appreciate them helping out with these administrative tasks that women are expected to do in the workplace.”

Pursuing allyship

Shikha: To wrap up the conversation, we asked Liz how women should be allies to men in their communities. 

In addition to removing expectations of chivalry and advocating for equality both in romantic relationships and in the workplace, Liz pushes for individuals to give men the space and empathy to embrace a more mindful masculinity and, in this post-Me Too moment, have discussions about these expectations with the men in their lives.

“If there is a time to have these uncomfortable conversations, it’s now,” she said.  

Thank you for reading and we hope you enjoy watching our conversation, linked below.

-Shikha and Troy

Watch the conversation