Book: The Male Factor

The Male FactorThis book – The Male Factor: The Unwritten Rules, Misperceptions, and Secret Beliefs of Men in the Workplace (Amazon) has to be one of the most depressing books I have ever read. Sometimes, surrounded by men, I think that I don’t understand the rules of the game that is on.

Having read this book, and had so many “ohhhh” moments… I understand better. And some of these rules really suck.

I found this book conflicting in the same way that I am conflicted about Lean In. What I would do if I wasn’t afraid is not work more and more hours for The Man. But I recognised that there is a lot of good advice in there, if that is what you do want. Early-on in The Male Factor I realised that this book is the same. I don’t like the dude-centric culture. I am tired of the casual misogyny rampant in the tech industry. But this is where I am, and my options are to leave, or make the best of it.

Much as I love the joke (maybe at this point pipe dream is a better description) a friend and I have about starting a Feminist Hacker Commune in Berlin… we are not moving to Berlin anytime soon. So I have to ask – how do I take it less personally? How do I find ways to cope better, and even to get ahead? More money buys freedom sooner, at the very least, even if it doesn’t stop me from getting patronized as much (another long term goal). How do I cry less over how hard it is? Working. Living. In a man’s world. Maybe understanding the rules better will help. I hate that is the answer – but this is the world we live in, it is as it is. I don’t know how much we can change things, or how fast. Extending time to burnout has to be a goal.

Women have to tell themselves, in business, it’s still a man’s word. That’s changing slowly and you shouldn’t accept it. But you do have to accurately evaluate the landscape. The better the evaluation, the better the results. You have to conduct yourself accordingly and say ‘I won’t compromise, but I will understand the rules.’ And remember that the only way to change the company is to get higher up.

“But many of us think that competence should be the most important thing,” I protested. ‘That’s the way it should work. If we are highly competent we should be able to succeed, period.’

Geoff shook his head. “No,” he said. “Think about it. Generally, especially as you rise through the ranks, no one is incompetent – so it falls to those other factors. It’s not just talent, because everyone has that. Instead it’s the boss valuing trust, valuing people who fit with his own style, and valuing loyalty. It’s so hard to break into those teams. You can have talent, but you have to earn loyalty.”

Three chapters in, the book was already making me so angry, even more disillusioned. And I already appreciated how helpful it was going to be.

There’s a thorough methodology in this book – thousands of anonymous surveys, carefully designed. Hundreds of interviews. I dislike many of the conclusions, but I think the methodology is sound enough to be insightful into the male approach.

Notes From The Book

What men mean by “it’s not personal, it’s business” is that they see these as distinct worlds, not part of one world – which is how women tend to see it.

There is some discussion of brain science – multitasking. Except that studies show that women don’t actually multitask that well either (less badly in some situations, hardly a big win). Also I’m in general dubious of any neuroscience claims since reading Delusions of Gender.

Being “emotional” is mixing these worlds. Not being a “team player” is mixing these worlds. And not being a team player includes not taking your personal self out of it.

People (women) who aren’t respected, who are seen as unpredictable or “high maintenance”, will be marginalised. Key quote here: “When you get the first signals your opinion isn’t valued, there’s time to repair the damage, or at least switch to a different position. Once you feel belittled, it’s time to leave the company.”

Men are keen to stress how extraordinarily valuable women who “understand the rules” are. Which I guess is a point about how much men value “diversity” that is on their terms, and arguably, isn’t actually all that diverse.

Women are seen to have problems with “letting things go”. Getting on board is expected, even if you think there are going to be problems. Document in an email, and then let it go.

“In business life, personal feelings shouldn’t be a consideration, except to the degree that they are going to affect the business.”

I have a hard time believing this – I’ve often seen men personalise things! It seems to me like an example of how men are presumed to be rational… and women are not. Think of Marissa Mayer being lambasted for banning working from home when the data showed that most people working from home were not even logging on to the corporate network. I think it is, men don’t just personalise, they rationalise too. In this light, even hiring a golf buddy can be “not personal” because they think he will be good at the job, and this saves time which they can use to do other things.

Many men have worked hard to suppress their emotions – this is how they are conditioned by society. As a result of this, they think that being emotional means someone isn’t thinking. Men can’t think clearly when experiencing strong emotions, so they think women can’t either. I want to factcheck the neuroscience here, but what I can believe is that men view strong emotions as a crisis, and as a result experience a rush of adrenaline, followed by exhaustion – that is a classic crisis response.

There is a long list of things men view as too emotional. Crying – obviously, Getting upset and/or defensive. Overreacting, or blowing something out of proportion. Jumping to conclusions – this includes perceived knee-jerk reactions, being rapid to judgement, even if logical, can be perceived as emotionally driven. Having strong opinions and refusing to be swayed. Personality conflicts, and this is what interpersonal problems are dismissed as. And finally – anything they don’t understand.

So many of these things seem to be things that men are allowed to do. When judgements are made quickly, men are being decisive, but women are being emotional. When taking a strong stance, men are showing confidence, but women are being emotional. “Personality conflicts” are a handy way to dismiss the mistreatment of women, and importantly, allocate a portion of the blame to them. And when anything that isn’t understood can be labelled as “emotion” – how is this a game that women are supposed to be able to succeed at?

Once a man views someone as being emotional, their interactions with them change.

When emotions mean not thinking, men worry that a woman being “emotional” means she is missing what is happening. They also worry that not thinking is contagious (this sounds like a completely rational, and not at all “emotional” response). Men think that emotions do not serve a business purpose, and are therefore redundant. They do view other men as being “emotional” as even more problematic – but I suspect other men get a much wider leeway on what “emotional” means than women do.

Men (try to) compartmentalise emotions, and then harness them to be effective. The need to edit emotions shown, like we edit the words we used is discussed – take a step back before reacting.

“Men or women who can’t disassociate from the emotional trauma of business end up leaving or failing.”

First time reading this and making notes this section made me so angry – so much of this chapter is ways men can rationalise the fear of women and how we operate. It’s infuriating, but better to know. Rereading my notes and writing it up, my heart breaks for the emotionally stuntedness of this representation of American Masculinity.

Men fear everything falling apart and being unable to provide for their family. For men, even success doesn’t provide much breathing room. To me, this seems completely bizarre. Most of the men I encounter are so confident, and some are really very arrogant. But it does explain some things, and the data and the quotes are compelling.

Part of this is needing to be seen to be “all in” to the team. This includes adapting to the culture – just getting work done is not enough. Results are above everything else, as it could all fall apart tomorrow. Being part of a team means experiencing the same pain, so leaving at 4 to pick the kids up (even if all the work is done) is not looked upon well.

When communicating, men want the conclusion up front – if they want more information, they will ask for it. They don’t want to listen to the details. He wants the end, so that he knows what he is listening to. Don’t overreact – men can blow up, but they will have forgotten about it 10 minutes later. Don’t be seen to hold a grudge, as unwillingness to let something go is viewed as a character flaw and bad for business. The data suggests that they see women in these situations, but not just women, women engaged in a conflict with a man.

I find this really difficult, because of the women I know who “hold grudges” these often come from instances of clear and harmful sexism. Of course they don’t want to encounter that person again – I wouldn’t either. I’ve seen “personality conflicts” that happened between a man and a woman where the guy was (or was later shown to be) clearly acting out of misogyny. This is part of why that kind of behaviour is so traumatic – there is the event itself, the effect it has on how she feels, and then the effect it has on other people’s perception of her.

The expectation is to suck it up. Accommodation is fine, but not equal. This is driven by how much men see work as a competition. Men are “highly attuned to how hard everyone is playing the game and how well – and whether everyone is playing the game by the same rules”.

Complaining does not count as sucking it up. If a you mention institutionalised bias, you are complaining. If you complain, you are seen as not capable of winning on your own merits. This can also include even mentioning a personal problem, like a divorce.

Asking for help, or asking why the (the bosses rule is law) is looked poorly upon. Taking time to ask questions when there is a deadline is even worse – even if these questions allow you to work more effectively.

This whole chapter is full of rage inducing reasons as to why the male dominated workforce is an inefficient one.

Women don’t see flexitime as a different standard, or special treatment, but men do. One of the things I found really telling was a male manager talking about how he was happy to accommodate female staff because he hopes his wife’s boss will do the same for her.

Men are very sensitive to any suggestion they are inadequate. If a woman is direct, or appears not to be sure that a decision was based on a legitimate reason, or asks “why” questions – basically anything that suggests she are questioning his judgement. If a woman pushes too hard on a decision she disagrees with, or shows signs of exasperation (men are much more tuned into female body language). Micromanaging, which includes writing a longer than necessary email. Direct disagreement, which can include making a suggestion in a group setting.

To keep a man happy in the workplace, you have to be non-threatening and encourage him to come to that conclusion himself – I think similar advice was given to keeping men happy at home.

This was so illuminating to me, I have actually said “how am I supposed to deal with someone I can’t ask a direct question of?”, and been baffled by someone (a man) taking what I thought was a statement of fact to be some kind of undermining of them. Many of these things seem so weird. Not being able to ask “why”? Is it really so necessary to tiptoe around the man’s fragile ego? Do they really have to operate like this with each other? This seems especially unfair when some of these things – like over-explaining – come directly from women not being assumed to be competent, the way men are.

The answer – some men are more sensitive to signs of disrespect from a woman. Roughly 20%. Which basically means for a woman in an 80% male environment, probably about 16% of the people she encounters are going to find her objectionable. Which might be something to help depersonalise – anything less than that is a win, I guess. But that is enough of a proportion to make it really hard. When we walk the line between being a bitch, and being a pushover, these are the men who make it so much narrower.

There is a full chapter on dress, which is (like basically every chapter) rage-inducing, and invokes men’s visual nature to make the argument against fitted clothing, because of the way it distracts them. And I really like to think that men are better than this, but in a test of retention from two videos – with the same woman, wearing the same outfit, only in one with her top arranged to display her breasts, and the other with it arranged to cover them up, men retained 25% less when her breasts were on display.

Possibly the worst part of this, is that men don’t view this as their own failure, or society’s failure to create a culture where women are completely objectified, they think that women who dress in a way that emphasises their figure, are trying to be “distracting”. Surveys of women reveal – this is not their goal. The gap here is huge – three out of four men think women dressing to emphasise their figure want to be noticed sexually, but only 16% of women had that intent. Because of this disconnect, men view women who wear close fitting clothing, or lower cut tops, as being less savvy, or think she is clueless because she doesn’t realise.


  • Be less personal.
  • Watch out for my opinion not being valued (have definitely seen this as a warning sign for a while, but it takes on additional importance).
  • Practise forced calmness – try to present a facade of calm, even when upset.
  • Look out for situations where responses can be labelled “emotional” (e..g. a decision men don’t like) and try to head it off at the pass.
  • Focus on results, but be aware of feeling the same pain.
  • Communicate the benefits of up front thought and discussion.
  • I may want to rethink my wardrobe.

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