The Staggering Cost of Traditional Masculinity

By Sallie Krawcheck

It is a characteristic of human nature that we are drawn to confidence.

We like to follow strong, certain, confident people. In fact, the allure of confidence is so great that we are even drawn to overconfidence; we value perceived confidence over demonstrated competence.

I know some number of you are sighing and thinking “The story of my life. Some confident, mediocre person winning the promotion … or the raise … or the plum assignment over me.”

Back when I worked on Wall Street, there was one man who was so confident and (I’m just gonna go ahead and say it) so handsome. And tall. With a low, strong voice. He spoke slowly and declaratively, with lots of meaningful pauses that added weight to his every word. Right out of Businessman Central Casting.

The thing is, he wasn’t very good at his job. But, damn, he exuded confidence out of every pore.

He was on every slate for promotion; whenever I would see that, I would say, “But he’s not very good at his job.” And he would be removed — but not before his immediate boss would say, “But he has the look of eagles.”

We have socialized so many of our men to act strong, confident, unemotional … and they have been rewarded for it. Handsomely. This gentleman was promoted nicely past his level of competence.

But it has cost us all.

I wrote last week about how society’s expectations around traditional masculinity mean that some men now believe that wearing a face mask during this pandemic emasculates them. (We were obviously in a mind meld with The New York Times, which last weekend ran an article with a similar theme: “Coronavirus Safety Runs Into a Stubborn Barrier: Masculinity.”)

This past week, especially after that “manterruption”-heavy VP debate, I kept returning to the concept of a “masculinity tax”* — and how much these traditional societal expectations of confidence and dominance have cost all of us.

The “masculinity tax” costs us when it drives us to promote the wrong person.

Like that guy back on Wall Street. Someone else should have had his pretty-senior-level job, along with its pretty-senior-level paycheck.

The “masculinity tax” costs us when it drives us to promote the wrong people, collectively.

When we provide senior-level opportunities to a narrow set of people — still mostly white men — we forgo the superior financial results that research study after research study after research study finds are derived from greater diversity in leadership teams.

The “masculinity tax” costs us when it drives us to vote for the most confident person.

Again, they tend to be mostly men. Which means they govern through the lens of their own lived experience. (Why doesn’t the US have a mandated, paid parental leave, despite majority support for it? Just look at who represents us in DC.)

The “masculinity tax” can cost us when we follow the investing advice given confidently.

Like when we hear from pundits on CNBC about which stocks are “oversold” and should “generate alpha” … or follow our neighbor’s can’t-lose-I-heard-it-from-my-brother-in-law stock tip … or we read that Bitcoin is a sure thing. (Don’t, don’t, and it’s not.)

I saw, again and again, the cost of the “masculinity tax” on Wall Street.

So many times, when people didn’t ask questions about risks going into the global financial crisis of 2008 because they didn’t want to “look weak.”

The “masculinity tax” can cost some women in men’s lives real money.

When women in mixed-gender relationships outsource the money responsibilities to their partners, 74% have a negative surprise when that money comes back to them once the relationship is over. Yes, this may be because women are not asking enough questions about that money … which we’ve been socialized to do. But my strong guess is that some part of this is that the men in these relationships are also sending out confident bat signals around that money and assuming they’ll be the ones to take control … just as they’ve been socialized to do.

The “masculinity tax” can cost some men in our lives their health.

From that NYT article: “Studies have shown men are less likely than women to wear seatbelts and helmets, or to get flu shots. They’re more likely to speed or drive drunk. They are less likely to seek out medical care.”

And in 2020, the “masculinity tax” is costing people their lives. Literally.

And it’s thus causing a greater economic contraction than we otherwise might have had, as we recover from the pandemic more slowly.

Which means that the “masculinity tax” may cost women+ — and most particularly BIPOC women+ — years, or even decades, of economic and financial progress.

When is enough enough?

*Of course, strength, confidence, and risk-taking aren’t solely the province of men. This kind of behavior can apply to all gender identities: When I worked on Wall Street, any number of women were also rewarded for exhibiting these characteristics. I remember numerous women touting that they took on more risk than the men on their trading desks.

But when these behaviors are connected with cisgender men via social norms, they have more collective power. And those social norms can be difficult to change — in fact, just as cis women see backlash for deviating from those expectations, so do cis men. And we all pay the price.

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Sallie Krawcheck

Sallie Krawcheck is the Founder & CEO of Ellevest.