Passive resistance to gender equality is still rife, but the men who designed and mostly run workplaces need to take action to change them
14 June 2017 – A few years ago a well-known chief executive who had recently joined the Male Champions of Change group told me he found the whole “gender area” a bit difficult because he grew up without sisters, went to a boys’ school, then studied and worked in a male-dominated field.
He seemed to have forgotten that he’d been raised by a mother and lived in a society made up of nearly 51% women. And that men have a gender too.
Like quite a few of his peers in the group, he was out of his comfort zone and starting to learn some unpleasant realities about his own privilege and what that means for the women who make up nearly 47% of the Australian workforce.
Men are part of the problem and need to be part of the solution, authors Graeme Russell and Michael Flood point out in a timely new Diversity Council Australia report titled Men Make a Difference: Engaging Men on Gender Equality.
Getting blokes on board is not a magic solution to gender inequality, the report notes, but without it the “systematic pattern of female disadvantage and male privilege” is unlikely to change quickly. This was also my conclusion in my book, Stop Fixing Women: Why Building Fairer Workplaces is Everybody’s Business (NewSouth).
Men are key to addressing an uneven system largely sustained by them, the report notes, but not because women are weak or can’t contribute. It’s about changing how men think, behave and relate to women and other men.
Genuine engagement however involves two uncomfortable home truths about most workplaces: that power needs to be shared but is still largely in the hands of men; and men have traditionally been the beneficiaries of “unearned” benefits.
Men’s views are often taken more seriously, they are evaluated more positively and seen as more “natural” leaders. Challenging those biases, my research suggests, needs to start with those at the top who can change the rules and deal with resistance.
It’s not about simply turning up to White Ribbon Day or men calling themselves feminists.
In fact, the report makes it clear that effective efforts should avoid putting men on pedestals or hiding behind token efforts – often known as “gender-washing” because there’s more talk than action. And male advocacy is not a replacement for – but should sit alongside – programs that support women.
But getting buy-in is still hard work: men don’t think it’s their problem, they fear judgement by their peers if they speak up, and many claim they don’t know what to say or do.
But there’s also a major upside, Flood and Russell point out: men will benefit from progress towards gender equality personally, in their intimate and family relationships, and in their workplaces and communities. And most men broadly support gender equality.
In fact, men may even find it easier to make an impact, whether individually or through the Male Champions of Change, programs such as the Workplace Gender Equilibrium Challenge or networks like The 100% Project.
Research shows that because men at the higher levels of workplaces can take for granted their gender and leadership positions and their acceptance by masculine establishments, they are often perceived more positively than women when acting as public champions.
But passive resistance is still rife within many organisations, where the latest diversity measures are often seen as “unfair” to men. Backlash is particularly virulent in the middle ranks of management – sometimes called the concrete layer.
No wonder it’s so much easier and less disruptive to tell women they need to “lean in” or gain confidence, which leaves the status quo in place.
The male leaders I interviewed were clear that they had to face up to the reality of what happened in their own workplaces and put their foot down to get new rules embedded.
They did more than talk and were using interventions to prevent bias in recruiting, promoting and paying employees. Examples included anonymous recruiting, which removes candidates’ names from applications, reviewing how work was allocated to ensure women were getting similar experience and opportunities to their peers, and conducting pay audits to identify gender gaps.
This included Lance Hockridge, former CEO of Aurizon, who introduced new recruitment programs and targets, and made sure he spoke directly to dissenters; and Martin Parkinson, former treasury secretary (now secretary of the department of prime minister and cabinet) who realised the work done in the past had dealt with symptoms and not the cause of the problem.
Several of these men acknowledged their efforts didn’t make them very popular in the ranks, but they were motivated by a strong sense of justice and the upside for their business.
And like the chair of Diversity Council Australia, former Australian of the Year and chief of army, David Morrison, they agreed that once you see sexism you can’t unsee it.
Gender equality is a business issue, not a women’s issue, concludes the report which provides much-needed research and advice by men on how to engage men in this effort.
Fixing women hasn’t delivered fairer outcomes because it only focuses on half the workforce and reinforces the stereotypes that underpin an unequal system.
Now we need the men who designed our workplaces and mostly run them to take action. They are the system and they need to help change it.
the Guardian UK