Mean Men vs. Mean Women

The obviously gendered title of my book, Mean Men, as well as one of the theories behind it—namely that there is a huge societal problem in the way we routinely excuse abominable interpersonal behavior in successful, powerful men—is something that, I’m happy to report, has been drawing strong reactions from my blog commenters. Some readers seem relieved that I appear to be pointing out a huge discrepancy in what behavior we deem acceptable in men versus that which we’ll tolerate in women, while others decry me for what they see as sexism. Let me say first that I’m thrilled that my posts are encouraging spirited discussion. To question and unpack these ideas is the very purpose of writing this work.

Male and female commenters alike have jumped in to say that they’ve worked for mean female bosses. To clarify, I am not claiming that mean female bosses—or mean women in general—don’t exist. But innumerable studies have shown that women are socialized to behave quite dissimilarly from men, and their relationship with power is a wholly different one. It’s not that women are never nasty or overly competitive, but this is not the kind of mean I’m talking about.

In this context I don’t use mean to imply that someone is unpleasant to be around or difficult or nasty. Mean in the context of the men I discuss is something much darker; it’s the deeply American trope of the self-made man taken to its most malignant extreme. A mean man may be surrounded by many enablers and yes men, but at his core, he’s a lone wolf who is obsessed with control. He’s almost pathologically driven to succeed and doesn’t care who has to suffer for him to do so. His flagrant, unchecked abuse of others is enabled by the immunity granted to him by his wealth, power, and/or sheer charisma. It’s not simply the meanness that sets these men apart; it’s the lack of consequences earlier in their careers that potentially could have extinguished or reduced the behavior after years, or decades, of getting a free ride.

I searched diligently for female examples of this in the course of my research—counterparts to men like Peter Arnell, Dov Charney, Harvey Weinstein, and Lance Armstrong—but they were so scarce that to focus on those I could find seemed to be blatant cherry-picking rather than presenting a representative sample. Partly, this is because there are simply not as many women in positions of power that rival those of the men I discussed, but it goes far deeper than that.

Successful self-made women such as Sara Blakely and Oprah Winfrey are often praised for their good nature and efforts to work collaboratively with their respective teams. Rarely do we see a woman praised for being a solitary genius the way that Steve Jobs was. By the same token, women are not permitted to behave the way men like Jobs are known to: that is, to be emotional, abusive, and out of control. And the truth is, women are socialized out of this long before they ever enter the working world. Women are encouraged to play well with others, where men are often taught they will be measured on their personal achievements. Individualism is key.

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville is struck by how individualism began as the first “language” through which Americans tended to think about their lives, how they valued independence and self-reliance above all else.

These qualities are expected to earn success in a competitive society such as ours, but they are also valued as virtues in themselves. American individualism demands personal effort and stimulates great energy to achieve. But it provides little encouragement for nurturance. This narrow view adopts a sink-or-swim approach to moral development as well as to economic success. It admires toughness and strength and sneers at softness and vulnerability. Win, win, win.

This kind of radical individualism is also a key determinant in the making of a mean man. Mean men represent a type of alienating individualism that endangers our more interdependent ideals: commitment, community, and citizenship. And women simply are not encouraged to behave this way.

With all that said, mean women do exist, outliers though they may be. So where are they? You’ll have to wait until next week.