While Sheryl Sandberg and the pro-women movement encourage women to “lean in,” what’s never discussed is the relentless pressure men feel to not “lean out.”
I came across an article recently that talked about the damaging effects men face from a lifetime of being told to “Be a man. Stop being such a fag.” and “Grow a pair” that made me think about how we assume there’s no downside to the expectations of leadership. In order to be considered masculine, as all “real” men are supposed to be, we’re expected to be the alpha dog, to take charge, and, when necessary, to fight. For men with families, there’s an expectation to be the breadwinner, and they live with the pressure of being the last, and sometimes the only, line of defense between their children sleeping in a warm bed or sleeping in the streets. If the cupboards are bare, and the rent isn’t paid, it is ultimately their responsibility.
Just as it’s difficult for men to understand the challenges women face, I don’t expect most of the women reading this to fully understand the pressures of being a man. It’s one of those seemingly slight societal differences that can’t really be explained and yet feels enormous to the person suffering through it. In fact, many men don’t really grasp the extent of the stress they feel since they’ve never known anything else. For men, it’s just how it is. It was only after reading a book about a woman’s experiences living as a man that I began to think about the burden of masculinity. A burden few women carry.
For women, a seat at Sandberg’s proverbial table seems like a glorious place. But for men, all of whom are expected to take that seat and reach for the brass ring, it comes with enormous pressure. No leaning back. No leaning out. If a man doesn’t have a seat at the table, there’s something wrong with him. He’s weak, a loser, second rate. If a woman chooses a typically low-paying career such as art or music, she’s creative. If a man does the same, unless he achieves rockstar status, he’s a slacker and unambitious. Sandberg talks about women choosing to take a break from work after the kids are born. That’s not even remotely an option for a man. Kids or no kids, men must go to work every day.
Many women complain about the skewed ratio of entrepreneurs and executives in the tech industry. Some even go so far as to blame men for the inequality. I’m not so blind as to think sexism is dead. I suspect all the women reading this have experienced it in some form. But just as men who don’t secure a seat at the executive table are considered inadequate, I’m sure many male entrepreneurs have thrown their hat into the entrepreneurial ring because that’s what’s expected of an alpha male.
To be a man, you need to be the boss, the founder, the CEO. In bars and clubs across San Francisco and every other city, women judge men by their career accomplishments, while men don’t really care what a woman has on her business card. As long as this double standard exists there will always be an outsized ratio of male executives and entrepreneurs.
Not only are men expected to get over our problems, but we’re expected to do it alone; all while starting a company, climbing the corporate ladder, protecting our loved ones, and providing for our families. For men, “leaning in” isn’t an option that we choose but an expectation that has been thrust upon us, and failure to take a seat at the table means a lifetime of quiet suffering while society tells us we’ve come up short.
I’m not suggesting women have it easy or perfect. As I said earlier, sexism exists. But being a man isn’t all fun and games.
Men live in a judgmental, unforgiving world where weakness isn’t tolerated. You just don’t hear about the pressures facing men because we aren’t allowed to complain. Talking about stress and problems is for wussies. While women discuss the merits of leaning in, men have nothing to discuss. For men, leaning out just isn’t an option.
[Illustration by Corinne Mucha for Pandodaily]