NEW YORK — Inside a granite Manhattan tower, 13 stories above Madison Square Park, masculinity expert Michael Kimmel advises employees at a major bank to drop the macho act.
Office swagger, he says, traps workers in a prison of increasingly archaic expectations. Work trumps everything, especially on Wall Street, where a 40-hour workweek sounds like a part-time gig.
“What holds men back?” the sociologist asks, pacing the conference room in black suede sneakers. “The same thing that holds women back: the behavior and attitudes of men.”
Kimmel is here, before 10 men and 12 women, to challenge gender stereotypes in one of America's most traditionally male-dominated workplaces. This is his second presentation at the bank, which aims to promote more women in a field where 'round-the-clock devotion can overwhelm those who prioritize family — or even pencil in a mid-afternoon seminar.
"Where are the men?" a managing director in a cream blazer asks, rising in her seat. "Is there a single male MD here?"
"I've been on Wall Street for 25 years, and really," she says, "where are the men?"
"I’ve had the same 25 years you’ve had," Kimmel replies. "Where are the men? How come this whole conversation has remained about women?"
He answers himself: Because men don't talk about it. And workers, in general, will suffer until they do.
Kimmel has written 20 books exploring this theme, most recently “Angry White Men” and “Manhood in America: A Cultural History.” His Ted Talk on how gender equality helps men, shot in May, has garnered more than 200,000 views.
He is the founder and director of Stony Brook University’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, which next year will launch the first master’s degree program in “masculinities studies” — plural, he stresses, because there are multiple ways to be a man.
This bank in Midtown South, a campus that devours a city block, is the fourth stop on his September tour. (The bank let a reporter attend the session on the condition that it not be named.) Kimmel heads next to a law firm in Indiana, a college preparatory school in Massachusetts and a women’s leadership conference in Rome.
The projection screen behind him reads:
Challenge the “unencumbered worker” as role model
Develop support mechanisms for men
Remember who we really are
The organizers who book Kimmel may want to score public relations points. But often audiences, intrigued or exasperated, start conversations that blow past his scheduled hour.
A man in a black suit, who works in communications, raises his hand.
“One boss got upset with me because I didn’t return an e-mail on my wedding day. He was just like, ‘It would have taken you 30 seconds.'"
The bankers groan in recognition.
The next month, the man continues, he joined another bank.
"You found that inflexibility, and you know what happened?" Kimmel asks. "That place lost you."
Twenty years ago, Kimmel tells the group, the Harvard Business Review asked him to investigate why American dads seemingly shunned paternity leave, even when the time-off was paid. Roughly 1 percent of companies offered the benefit at the time, he says, and less than 1 percent of those eligible requested it.
Kimmel scheduled interviews at banks, law firms and corporate giants to inquire: Why not help your wife? Bond with your newborn?
“One man told his colleagues, ‘Did you know we have paternity leave? I think I’m going to take it,’” he tells the room. “And his colleagues said, “I guess you’re not committed to your career, are you?”
Another man told a supervisor that his wife was pregnant.
“And the supervisor goes, ‘Okay, you can take leave. You won’t make partner. We’ll put you on the daddy track.’”
Another, a lawyer, asked his boss whether he could take a couple of weeks off after the birth of his baby.
“The partner leaned over his desk, looked at him sternly, and said: Now you listen here,” Kimmel recounts, “I am 64 years old, and I have three grown children, and I can't remember their birthdays.”
The lawyer left that firm.
Though gender discrimination is less blatant today, it lingers in many workplaces — and costs employers talent, Kimmel says.
Researchers recently conducted a study of a global consulting firm, published this year by the Harvard Business School, where top management reported having a “gender problem.” Although the firm offered generous family-friendly policies, only 10 percent of partners were women, compared with 40 percent of junior associates.
The study unearthed an intuitive truth. Female employees were much more likely to take family leave and sick days than male employees. One finding about men, specifically, surprised the company: An equal number of men and women had left in the preceding three years.
Men reported quitting because of the long hours. They wanted to take advantage of the family-friendly policies, researchers noted, but buckled under pressure to keep working and “suffer in silence.”
This mentality, the authors concluded, hurts everyone. The workplace will remain gender unequal, they said, if men believe they don't have cultural permission to spend time with their kids.
“This is the talent you’re going to be recruiting for the next five to 10 years,” Kimmel says. “You want to keep them? Then the workplace is going to have to change to enable them to have the lives they have come to expect.”
A recent study called “The New Dad” found that 89 percent of U.S. men ranked paternity leave as “important. That number varied by generation: Seventy-seven percent of the Baby Boomers and 88 percent of Gen X fathers said the benefit should be a priority, compared to 93 percent of Millennials.
Millennials, now entering their 30s, are also more likely than their predecessors to put family obligations ahead of job duties.
“Today’s young men, they assume that their wives are going to work outside the home,” says Kimmel, who is raising a 16-year-old son, Zach. “They also assume they’re going to be amazing dads. They’re going to be very involved with their kids.”
Workplaces, he says, should adapt to the times to stay competitive.
Only 10 to 15 percent of American employers, however, offer paid paternity leave. Research shows that American dads rarely take more than two weeks off. (The United States provides no paid paternity leave. Sweden, in comparison, offers 60 days to fathers. About a quarter of dads there use the benefit.)
“One thing we need to work on,” Kimmel says, “is engaging men to support other men when they make these kind of choices.”
The managing director nods. She talks openly about parenthood — her "mommy group" meets every Thursday at 1 p.m. — so others below her, men particularly, can do the same. Senior men with kids, she says, should chime in.
"No one ever gives me attitude. I feel so bad for all the men who have to deal with attitude."
She feels less sympathy, however, for the men who skipped today's lecture.