The concept of male backlash is not new. There has always been some form of resistance to diversity, inclusion and equity work. The overt form of resistance includes things such as hostile commentary on social media. Passive forms of backlash, on the other hand, often show up in anonymous culture surveys, for example when people express feelings of being alienated from their organisation’s gender equality programs. Passive resistance can also be institutionalised, such as the lack of effort by organisations to fast track gender equity initiatives.
The ‘Stupid Curve’ … demonstrates that Australian companies are still wasting a significant amount of internal talent.
However, something has changed over the last few years. When the conversation shifted from ‘fixing’ women to ‘enabling’ women, when many women found their voice in the #MeToo campaign, and when representative targets started to make it into gender equity action plans and organisations became more vocal about their support for gender equality, the resistance ranged from passive to outright anger. We need to understand these new narratives if we are to accelerate gender equality in the workplace.
Reasons for resistance
Many fail to properly comprehend the evidence and therefore remain dismissive of gender equity initiatives. Evidence from WGEA census reports still shows under-representation, under-utilisation and discrimination (or a softer term, unconscious bias), including sexual harassment of women in workplaces still persists.
The “Stupid Curve” coined by former US Deloitte boss Mike Cook, demonstrates that Australian companies are still wasting a significant amount of internal talent. Whilst, the percentage of women graduating from universities has been over 55% for the past 15 years (Alan Olsen), organisations still select nearly ~70% of their leaders (90% in 2008) from only 50% of the workforce (the male half). As a result, the other 50% (the female half) of the workforce is overlooked and underutilised.
Our social conditioning (including the influence of social media) may contribute to how we perceive women in leadership, culture, power or authority, in an Australian context. The lack of diversity in politics, mainstream media, TV shows and commercials, helps to normalise stereotypes. And when women try to break through those stereotypes, they experience resistance.
We have recently seen the emergence of powerful men advocating for gender equality. However, when establishing a stake in the game their narrative around why they are invested in gender equity – beyond personal gain – needs to be clear. DeVries suggests that organizational gender scholarship by male and female executives is critical to understanding the gendered nature of championing.
… targets and quotas, and positions designed for women-only, (are) perceived by some as too interventionist and a type of reverse discrimination.
This knowledge can also impact the prioritising of gender equity in organisations. For example, strategies that look at adopting gender neutral language and tackling sexism are important, but these need to be coupled with deeper structural and systemic issues, so that men don’t cherry pick issues in isolation to either campaign for or protest against.
The other reason is that the conversation around targets and quotas, and positions designed for women-only, is perceived by some as too interventionist and a type of reverse discrimination. What the opponents fail to understand is that targets and quotas are usually a last resort and introduced after years of gently nudging people towards equality outcomes.
Moving men into feminised industries
Demographer Bernard Salt analysed the top 100 jobs performed by men and women, as recorded in the census of 2011 and 2016. Not much had changed. The greatest positive shift was the increase in female train drivers. The top male professions for both the 2011 and 2015 census were: carpenters, plumbers, electricians, builders. For women, it was teachers, childcare, health and aged care.
Another reason is that men in the middle of the organisation are being left out of the gender equity conversation. With the emergence of men at the top of organisations now championing gender equity initiatives, there has been an absence of men in the middle of the organisation doing the same.
46% of men believe that gender equality strategies do not take men into account and that 42% of men and boys feel increasingly excluded from measures to improve gender equality
Research from the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation shows 46% of men in Australia believe that gender equality strategies do not take men into account: in addition, 42% of men and boys feel increasingly excluded from measures to improve gender equality.
Where are the men driving D&I?
Another reason for male backlash is the lack of men engaged in developing and driving D&I efforts and polices. An increase of male employees deployed to Diversity and Inclusion teams may help ensure men are better engaged, for example, in strategies around parental leave provisions and encouraging men to work in traditionally feminized areas and industries.
Whilst there has been an apparent rise in women advocating for men, especially when it comes to new fathers, there are nevertheless questions around the stereotypical images used to showcase fathers as parents. Perhaps such images fail to fully explore the complexities of fatherhood?
Men come in all shapes and sizes. Single fathers, step-fathers, foster fathers, fathers in a same sex relationship, men with multiple diversity dimensions, etc. Men who do not see themselves accurately represented in these situations, may feel excluded or misrepresented. A further exclusion occurs when we don’t also consider LGBTIQ in the gender equity conversations.
Approaching D&I differently to ensure buy-in
Organisations need to see ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ proficiency and practice as a key management attribute.
Current gender equity data highlights the under-representation and under-utilisation of women in Australian workplaces, in the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s August 2018 Gender Workplace Statistics at a Glance report:
- Women hold 13.7% of chair positions and 24.9% of directorships and represent 16.5% of CEOs and 29.7% of key management personnel.
- Nearly three-quarters (71%) of reporting organisations have a male-only team of key management personnel, and
- 28.2% of directors in the ASX 200 are women
Having transparent organisational gender equity data would help fast track the conversation …
Having transparent organisational gender equity data helps fast track the conversation in gender equity, giving a clear narrative and rationale for doing the work. Looking through your organisation’s cultural survey responses to see if gender is even mentioned, or whether issues around backlash exist, is also helpful.
This is an edited version of a longer essay published on LinkedIn by Roman Ruzbacky.